New Brunswick workers and unions celebrate major victory after Bill 24 shelved

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A slick mobilization campaign rallying unions and workers against law changes that threatened collective bargaining rights in New Brunswick resulted in a major victory for labour this month.

Bill 24, an omnibus bill that proposed changes to 14 sets of laws in the province, was introduced in February. 

According to New Brunswick unions, if the bill had been successful, workers would have had little sway at the bargaining table because of changes stacking the deck in favour of employers at arbitration. 

Lana Payne, Atlantic regional director for Unifor, said once unions became aware of the seriousness of the proposed amendments in February, leaders across the province were quick to organize members into the campaign.

"It would have transformed collective bargaining," she said.

"We would no longer see an employer coming to the table with what we felt would be a legitimate final offer -- why would they ever bargain fairly and freely…if they could just resort to this other system that basically gave them a stacked deck."

Proposed labour law amendments under Bill 24:

  • Arbitrators to be selected by the government, rather than through agreement between employer and unions. Unions said this would create an unfair advantage for workers, as the government -- itself a major employer -- would have had sole charge of selecting arbitrators.
  • Final-offer selection would be mandated for monetary items like wages. This means arbitrators pick what they believe to be the best package from one of the concerned parties -- rather than trying to negotiate a mix of proposals from both workers and employers.
  • Adding of "criteria" to what an arbitrator needed to consider when making a decision on monetary items. Unions believed this related to the government's intention to have the financial circumstances of an employer weighing heavily in arbitration decisions.

The union, which represents more than 7,000 workers in New Brunswick, also had its legal department review the proposed legislation. It formulated arguments presented to the government based on its violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and free and collective bargaining rights.

Roch Leblanc, Unifor chair of the Atlantic political action committee, said coordination between national representatives ensured all locals were made aware of the March 29 action day in Fredericton.

About 150 workers -- from different unions -- set up in the public gallery of the New Brunswick legislature while MLAs debated bill 24 and "made our presence known," Leblanc said.

"We also invited the media and our leaders spoke [to them] about the consequences of that legislation. That was well done because it really gave the population a sense of what was going on."

"We also informed our members to call their members of the legislative assembly so they could put pressure on their elected officials," he said.

Communication with unions, including CUPE, the Atlantic Firefighters Association and the Police Association, was also key.

As the campaign gained traction, New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant and his labour minister Francine Landry agreed to meet with Payne and Unifor national president Jerry Dias.

At the April 5 meeting, Dias and Payne outlined labour's arguments against the proposed legislation.

Three days later, the government announced it was shelving the section relevant to labour laws in Bill 24.

"It's probably one of the shortest…and most positive campaigns I've ever worked on," said Leblanc, who has been a union activist for the past 12 years. 

Opposition politicians also opposed labour law changes in Bill 24.

Unifor, which reached out to its employers regarding the proposed changes, said feedback indicated the government had also failed to consult employers before tabling the bill. 

Both Leblanc and Payne were proud of the decisive victory labour had achieved in New Brunswick in response to Bill 24.

Payne said Unifor believed the government had proposed the law changes because it wanted to reduce cost pressures on public service employers like municipality governments and universities.

It became clear the government also believed regulations around collective bargaining and arbitration needed to achieve this should be applied in the private sector as well as the public one when Bill 24 became public, she said.

 

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/Tony Webster

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