A new book outlines what happened when Premier Blaine Higgs pushed public sector workers too far, leading to a 16-day strike by 22,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in the fall of 2021.
“Our victory was not an easy one, but it was well earned,” concludes the 94-page book Bargaining Forward. Packed with stories and photos, it chronicles an epic struggle that began in 2017 when CUPE’s annual convention passed a resolution vowing to fight for better wages after decades of cuts to public services.
“The resolution stated that the New Brunswick government was mismanaging public finances while blaming deficits on the cost of public services, that workers were getting hammered at the bargaining table and that real wages had been stagnant for more than 20 years,” the book says.
“The government was out to destroy public sector unions, the resolution concluded, and ‘the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up and fight back.'”
At a book launch in Moncton on Jan. 25, CUPE Maritimes regional director Sandy Harding recalled how hundreds of children walked picket lines to support parents who worked in a wide variety of jobs such as school bus drivers, educational assistants, prison guards, maintenance employees and health-care workers.
“Those children saw workers stand up, fight and win,” she told the audience of about 100 people who had gathered for the occasion.
“What was done in this province will have a generational effect,” she added. “We haven’t had something like that in a long time. So, it’s something to be extraordinarily proud of.”
The book, co-authored by Susan O’Donnell and David Gordon Koch of the NB Media Co-op, points out that New Brunswick adopted neo-liberal policies in the 1980s. Ever since, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have imposed punitive “austerity” measures on public services while also shifting the tax burden from corporations to individuals.
“Tax havens such as Bermuda, home to the Irving family of companies, were siphoning off billions every year, money that could have been used to support public services in Canada,” the book says.
It adds that by 2017, public sector workers in New Brunswick were the lowest paid in the country.
“The province’s low wages were disproportionately hurting women, who made up the majority of CUPE members in the province.”
The book argues that the quality of public services depends on fair wages for the workers who deliver them.
Higgs & the will to fight
Aside from detailing the background to the CUPE strike, Bargaining Forward tells the story of its fight with Premier Blaine Higgs, the 35-year former executive in the Irving empire, publisher of provincial newspapers long noted for their anti-union views.
After winning his “pandemic majority” in September 2020, the book says that Higgs single-handedly revived CUPE’s will to fight when, in December, he announced a new wage mandate for the public sector: 0% for the first year in all contracts followed by 1% for each of the following three years.
On May 30, 2021, CUPE gave Higgs 100 days to settle with its 22,000 members, many of whom had been without contracts for five years.
The book then tells of the failed rounds of negotiations, the strike and the many twists and turns that followed as well as the victory it finally brought on wages, i.e. a 15% wage adjustment over five years and 17.9% for the lowest-paid workers.
At the book launch last month, regional director Sandy Harding painted Higgs as one of the main characters in Bargaining Forward.
“He’s mentioned 74 times in here,” she said, adding that the union is scheduled to meet with the premier soon.
“At the end of that meeting that we have, we’re going to give him a book and say, ‘You’re mentioned 74 times in here, you might want to read [it].'”
For the NB Media Co-op’s coverage of the book launch and to watch a video recording of it, click here.
To order a copy of Bargaining Forward, click here.