They were taking part in one of several rallies and walks in New Brunswick to support more than 22,000 public-sector workers who warn they’re ready to go on strike next month to back their call for substantial wage increases.
Many of the workers, who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, have been without contracts for five years and are among the lowest paid public-sector workers in Canada.
They work in a wide variety of fields including in the prison and court systems as well as in transportation, tourism and education.
“I think the biggest thing is we’ve just got to stick together,” said Shelley Ward, a member of CUPE Local 2745.
She works as an educational assistant during the school year, but collects EI in the summer.
She says educational assistants have faced rounds of government cutbacks and there are too few supports to help them do their jobs effectively.
“We just need to stick together so that they know that we’re important and we’re not asking for a whole lot,” Ward said as people gathered in the hospital parking lot.
“We just have to show that this is important, and the hospital’s important, and that our jobs are what keeps everything going.”
Ward was referring to nearly 10,000 front-line, health-care workers in a wide range of fields including paramedics, licenced practical nurses, patient-care attendants, as well as members of hospital caretaking, maintenance and clerical staffs.
Their union, CUPE Local 1252, warned in a news release last spring that there are chronic shortages among hospital support staff including an estimated shortage of 200 licenced practical nurses as well as 100 vacant paramedic positions.
Meantime, the union that represents New Brunswick’s registered nurses estimated last month that there are at least 854 vacant nursing positions in hospitals and long-term care homes.
ER closed all weekend
“This is a mess, is the easiest way I could describe it,” former Mayor John Higham said during today’s rally outside the hospital.
“COVID made us understand how important health services were to us,” he added.
Higham, who has been part of a committee seeking to protect local hospital services, stressed the crucial need for enough staff to run the hospital and operate its emergency room.
“Today is a perfect example. [ER] closed last night, last minute, all weekend long. None of us knew anything about it. We didn’t get any notice of it,” he said.
“We understand there’s staffing issues,” he added. “That has to be overcome, but it should never have gotten this far.”
MLA Megan Mitton told today’s rally that successive provincial governments have failed to deal with shortages in nursing and among other health-care staff.
“I can remember meeting with the nurses’ union in 2014 when I first entered formal politics and they told me that they’ve been warning governments for a long time that this is coming,” she said.
Mitton suggested providing more money to train nurses at New Brunswick universities and treating workers with more respect.
“We can make sure that fair contracts are signed and we’re not forcing nurses and health-care workers to take a zero when they’ve just put their lives on the line in a pandemic,” she said.
Mitton was referring to Premier Higgs’s plan to impose a zero percent raise in one year of a four-year contract with public sector unions and one percent raises in each of the other three years.
She said the Sackville hospital provides essential services to her whole riding.
“We need to fight back and make sure that we have service 24/7.”
Brandon Stone told the rally he started at Sackville Memorial in February where he works to ensure the safety and sterility of medical devices used in the hospital and its operating room.
He recalled working at the Moncton Hospital when the pandemic broke out.
“It was quite an ordeal when we first started this COVID,” he said. “It was emotionally draining, mentally draining.”
Stone teared up as he shared his experience.
“Having support from everybody, makes a world of wonder,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion.
“This COVID has hit everybody in every way and it’s just great to have the support we need so that we can keep going and keep trying.
“Thank you to everybody for giving us this support.”