Schools switch to e-learning Monday after New Brunswick public service workers strike

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HALIFAX –

All New Brunswick schools will switch to online learning starting Monday after the union representing 22,000 public sector workers went on strike Friday morning.

Premier Blaine Higgs and Education Minister Dominic Cardy expressed disappointment at a press conference over the Canadian Union of Public Employees strike decision, which prompted the province to close schools on Friday .

Higgs said parents were scrambling to find other arrangements and children were missing out on Halloween school activities. The strike is also affecting ferry services and correctional facilities.

The strikers include school bus drivers, guards, mechanics, some rehabilitation and therapy health workers, educational support staff, transportation and infrastructure workers, and community college workers.

Despite threats from union leaders that a strike was imminent, Cardy said he received no official notification of a walkout on Friday.

He said the only option was to close the schools.

While teachers and other school staff will continue to report for work, Cardy said having unknown staffing levels means students will have to switch to online learning.

Steve Drost, president of the New Brunswick chapter of CUPE, said the union’s 22,000 members have not received a proper raise in 15 years and remain among the lowest paid in the country.

“They are so far behind the cost of living,” Drost said in an interview. “They are prepared to do whatever it takes to get a fair wage.”

Neither side is moving, meaning workers take turns from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“Honestly, it’s a little sad that we have to come to this,” said Owen Morehouse, a school bus driver.

“Especially when they talk about having a $ 38 million surplus. But that’s right, that’s what we need to do, that’s where we’re headed.”

Before the talks broke down, the union was seeking a 12 percent increase over four years, with no strings attached. The government confirmed on Thursday that it was offering an 8.5% pay rise over a five-year period.

The provincial government abruptly withdrew from contract negotiations on Tuesday evening, the union said.

Premier Blaine Higgs has said his government is committed to working with CUPE to reach a fair deal, but is ready to order strikers to return to work if necessary.

“If our schools and our health care system are targeted by strikes, it will cause pain and harm the safety and security of New Brunswickers,” Higgs said in a statement Thursday before the walkout.

“We are ready to take the necessary steps, including possibly legislation, to ensure the safety and health of New Brunswickers with access to essential services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. “

Drost said the threat from Higgs was unnecessary.

“We have designation levels to ensure the safety, security and protection of the public,” said the union leader, referring to provincial rules on essential workers.

“These levels (of essential workers) are negotiated between the employer and the union. So there is no need (to use back-to-work legislation). This is an abuse of power.”

Earlier this week, Education Minister Dominic Cardy wrote to students and families to say the government understood that a strike would be stressful.

“However, I want to assure you that our experience in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year has demonstrated that the education system is flexible and adaptable,” Cardy said.

“School districts have contingency plans in place to ensure continued learning, but families need to be prepared for possible disruptions in their normal routines.”

The minister went on to say that students should be prepared for “sustained home learning,” and said that students who rely on educational assistants would lose access to the service.

Higgs said the government’s offer matches deals reached this fall with three other bargaining units. In addition, his government has pledged to increase the wages of casual workers by 20 percent, improve pension coverage and provide an average retroactive pay of $ 3,200.

The union pointed out that the government announced its fourth consecutive budget surplus earlier this month.

CUPE officials say they will be in different locations over the weekend and expect the strike to continue into next week.

On Thursday, the union said the public would be notified before the strike began.

“I think everything has pretty much been set in motion,” Drost said Thursday. “The government refuses to negotiate fairly with these groups, and they are preparing to act as we speak. “

About 22,000 CUPE members from 10 different locals voted 94 percent in favor of the strike earlier this month. Talks broke down Tuesday night when the provincial government pulled out of negotiations.

With files from the Canadian Press.


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