Over 22,000 Canadian public workers strike for higher pay

By Philippe Tessier
November 22, 2021

FREDERICTON, New Brunswick — Over 22,000 members of 10 locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees have been on strike across the province since Oct. 29. They are demanding higher wages to reduce the gap with public sector workers in the rest of Canada and no concessions on the pensions of two of the CUPE locals.

“Some 20 years of Liberal and Conservative governments have put us in this position, and it is time to say enough. We have been giving on wage and losing because of inflation and now it is time to stand up,” Rob Burke, a school custodian and member of CUPE Local 5017 in Saint John, told the Militant.

Over 5,000 strikers demonstrated Nov. 2 in Fredericton at the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick in response to the announcement that some CUPE workers who were deemed to work in “essential services” were locked-out as well. Busloads came from across the province, as well as from Quebec and Ontario, to show support.

“We are like the ants in the fable, and they are the grasshoppers, but there are a lot more ants than grasshoppers,” said Grace Small, recording secretary of Local 1866, at a picket hall Nov. 4 in Saint John. “We show them who has the power when we decide to fight.”

Teamster Conference Rail Canada Division 89 President Sylvain St-Amour sent a solidarity letter to the strikers from Montreal. “I wanted to let you know that we are supporting you as it is important to fight for our rights, a decent salary for a job.”

So far, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs refuses to budge, and is attempting to divide the workers, insisting on pension cuts for just two of the 10 locals. The union put out a “fact vs. fiction sheet” answering Higgs. “Centralized bargaining was always about wages and nothing else. Higgs continues to obsess over pension concession for education workers. Higgs is holding up negotiations by targeting 2 of 10 CUPE locals. Higgs rejected CUPE’s proposal to take pensions off this table.”

On Nov. 5 New Brunswick Minister of Justice and Public Safety Hugh  J. A. Flemming ordered 2,000 health care workers back to work, claiming the workers are needed to administer COVID-19 vaccinations and do emergency surgeries. The government said there would be fines of up to $20,400 a day for each worker not showing up, as well as $100,000 for the union.

“It’s simply a tool that was used to interfere with these members’ legal rights,” said Steve Drost, CUPE New Brunswick president. Still, the unions complied with the order.

On the picket line, strikers were eager to explain the importance of their fight. “I’ll stay out here in the cold; we need to build a movement. We are not just fighting for wages; we’re fighting for good health care for the whole province,” said Kristi McMonagle, a health support worker in Local 908 in Fredericton.

Many strikers have been encouraged by coverage of the fights by John Deere and Kellogg workers in the U.S. “Workers face a global economy, it is a global struggle, we need to support each other, it’s important to show solidarity with unions around the world,” Chris Watson, president of Local 350, which organizes school custodians and trades workers in Saint John, told the Militant. “It is an international fight.”