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


FREDERICTON — Schools closed across New Brunswick as thousands of public sector workers walked off the job early Friday morning in a bid to secure higher wages.

Steve Drost, president of the New Brunswick branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said the union’s 22,000 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. “They are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get a fair wage.”

Those on strike include school bus drivers, custodians, some health-care workers in rehabilitation and therapy, educational support staff, workers in transportation and infrastructure and community college workers.

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The provincial government abruptly walked away from contract talks Tuesday night, the union said.

Premier Blaine Higgs has said his government is committed to working with CUPE to reach a fair deal, but he’s prepared to order the strikers back to work if necessary.

“If our schools and our health-care system are targeted by strikes, this will cause pain and harm the safety and security of New Brunswickers,” Higgs said in a statement Thursday before the walkout. “We are prepared to take necessary action, possibly including legislation, to keep New Brunswickers safe and healthy with access to essential services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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.

“Those (essential worker) levels are negotiated between the employer and the union. So there’s no need to (use back-to-work legislation). That’s an abuse of power.”

Before talks broke off, 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.

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