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Schools close as thousands of New Brunswick public sector workers launch strike

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs had harsh words for the province's largest union Friday as thousands of public sector workers started a legal strike that forced the closure of all schools with little warning.

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs had harsh words for the province's largest union Friday as thousands of public sector workers started a legal strike that forced the closure of all schools with little warning.

"Parents had to scramble this morning to find alternative child-care arrangements at the last minute," Higgs told a news conference, referring to the walkout by members of the New Brunswick branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"CUPE's actions show that their primary concern is to cause disruption. They have not shown an interest in engaging in meaningful negotiations."

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said schools across the province will shift to online learning on Monday.

Those who went on strike Friday include school bus drivers, custodians, mechanics, some health-care workers in rehabilitation and therapy, educational support staff, and workers in transportation, corrections and the community college system. The strike is also affecting ferry services and provincial jails.

In all, 22,000 union members are in a legal strike position, with the main demand being higher wages. Union president Steve Drost said most of the union's members haven't had a proper raise in 15 years and remain among the lowest paid in the country.

"They've fallen so far behind the cost of living," Drost said in an interview Friday. "They are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get a fair wage."

Before contract talks broke off Tuesday night, the union was seeking a 12 per cent raise over four years, with no conditions attached. The government confirmed Thursday it was offering an 8.5 per cent wage increase over a five-year period.

Higgs said the union's push for higher wages was unrealistic.

"Responding to these demands will put the future of all New Brunswickers at risk," he said, adding that the province had contingency plans in place to ensure the health-care system — and its COVID-19 service — would not be affected by the labour dispute.

"We must recognize what the future looks like, beyond just this year .... Let's make it realistic for those who are paying the bills."

Higgs has said his government is committed to working with CUPE to reach a fair deal, but he made it clear Friday he's prepared to order the strikers back to work if necessary.

"If the union refuses to work with us to reach a reasonable agreement ... we will take the actions necessary," he said. "We are looking at options, including legislation, if that is what is takes to keep New Brunswickers safe and healthy .... I hope this will not be necessary."

Drost said Higgs's threat was unnecessary.

"We have designation levels to ensure the safety, security and protection of the public," the union leader said, referring to the province's essential worker rules. Legislating workers back would be "an abuse of power," he said.

Earlier this week, the union had warned there would be a walkout, but it was unclear when that would happen. The announcement of the strike early Friday came as a rude shock to some.

Huey Lord, 49, said three of his four children were at home with him in Rothesay, N.B., which was disrupting his routine as a remote worker for a telecommunications firm. His wife, a nurse, had to go in to work Friday.

"Working from home, even if you have yourself squirrelled away, it's hard for kids to differentiate between you being the guy working, versus you being the dad getting them waffles at any given point of the day," he said.

"I'm certainly hoping this (walkout) isn't a prolonged situation .… We were just getting back to a regular routine and another disruption wasn't something we anticipated."

Teri McMackin, a 31-year-old resident of Petitcodiac, said the walkout meant shifting her five-year-old son out of kindergarten and back into daycare.

"My child isn't getting a normal kindergarten experience and that's the disappointing part," she said. "He's been in school for two months, he's been developing habits and now he's going back to daycare. For him, it's a bit confusing."

Still, McMackin said she supports the union's actions.

"I want my kids to have fun and to be safe (at school), but I also want the people who are cleaning the schools and driving the buses to be paid fair wages."

Higgs has said the government's offer corresponds with agreements reached this fall with three other bargaining units. As well, his government has pledged to increase the pay of casual workers by 20 per cent, improve pension coverage and provide an average of $3,200 in retroactive pay.

The union has pointed out that the government announced its fourth consecutive budget surplus earlier this month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2021.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax with files from Michael Tutton.

The Canadian Press