Thursday, October 8, 2020

Celebrating 50 years of the New Brunswick Union

Throughout the month of October, heading into our 50th anniversary convention, the New Brunswick Union (NBU) will be posting a series of articles detailing the history of the union.
The first installment details the years prior to the union becoming official in 1970. From there, each decade will be explored. A special thank you to Alex Wentzell for his work researching and writing these stories.

The Beginnings
Although it officially came into existence on April 30th, 1970, the history of the New Brunswick Union dates back as far as July, 1920. In this section we examine the men and women that created our organization.
Prior to 1964
In the years prior to 1964, the structure of New Brunswick’s Public Sector was radically different than it was today. Most of the services currently run by the provincial government were then handled on the municipal level by New Brunswick’s 15 counties. Although this structure had been virtually unchanged since the 19th century, its sustainability was seriously cast into doubt in the early 1960s. With three of New Brunswick’s 15 counties on the verge of bankruptcy and several others struggling to get by, first-term Liberal Premier Louis Robichaud appoints lawyer Edward Byrne to investigate restructuring New Brunswick’s government.
In 1964, Byrne’s commission releases their report. Entitled “Report of The Royal Commission on Finance and Municipal Taxation in New Brunswick,” it proposes a radical restructuring of New Brunswick’s government. The Commission proposes that education, justice, public health, real estate assessment, and welfare all be transferred to the provincial government, away from municipalities. In addition, it proposes an increase in provincial sales tax and the establishment of equalization grants to municipalities. Premier Louis Robichaud accepts the Commission’s recommendations in full.
This transfer of power to provincial departments also results in around 20,000 employees who were previously employed at the municipal level becoming provincial employees instead. This change is pivotal to understanding the history of the New Brunswick Union and NB’s broader labour movement, since this transfer of employees also meant a loss of bargaining status. Provincial employees were not viewed legally as employees, meaning that, under the Industrial Relations Act, they could not form unions. This was despite the fact that labour leaders had had some success organizing these employees at the municipal level, with 39 locals and over 3500 employees represented by 1964.
Between 1964-66, several organizations began lobbying the provincial government to allow public employees to unionize, such as The New Brunswick Federation of Labour, The New Brunswick Nurses’ Association, and the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation. Also amongst them was The New Brunswick Civil Service Association, a historical precursor to what is now known as The New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees.
The Civil Service Association formed on July 12th, 1920, and was officially incorporated in 1954. It is a “voluntary organization association of temporary and permanent Civil Servants of New Brunswick, formed for the purpose of assisting employees in their day-to-day and long-range relations with their employers.” Although not a union, the association acted as a representative for its members in dealings with the employer. Nearly two thirds of New Brunswick’s civil service were part of the association. Its executives sat on Joint Council, an early employer-employee relations committee, and submitted briefs to the government. However, their power and effectiveness were extremely limited due to their inability to benefit from the rights of unions.
The struggle to obtain bargaining rights culminated with a concession from the premier. In 1966, Premier Robichaud appointed Saul Frankel, an industrial relations specialist from McGill University, as a one man royal commission to advise the premier on whether New Brunswick’s Civil Service should be unionized. This news is met with both excitement and apprehension from New Brunswick’s public employees and their organizations. Addressing the Association’s annual meeting, NBCSA President Robert S. Langstroth states: “The Frankel Report will undoubtedly mark a turning point in our Association and I feel will highlight the necessity for a series of important studies. In plain language, be prepared.”

On May 30th, 1967, Saul Frankel releases his report to the provincial government. Using Saskatchewan (where public employees had been organized since 1945) as a model, Frankel recommends several sweeping changes to New Brunswick’s industrial relation landscape. Chief among them are the creation of a separate act to govern labour relations in the public sector and widespread expansion of collective bargaining. Frankel recognizes collective bargaining as a fundamental part of civil society, writing, “Collective bargaining in one form or another is characteristic of the political process in a society that allows its members a wide area of freedom. . . . If democratic societies are viable and enduring it is . . . because they succeed in developing institutions and procedures that help to reconcile differences and provide ways of resolving disputes.”
During the year’s throne speech, Minister of Labour H.H. Williamson announces a new Public Service Labour Relations Act, following through on the recommendations of Frankel’s report and granting public employees the right to organize. Furthermore, public employee’s employer is officially recognized as treasury board, and a separate Public Service Labour Relations Board is created to grant certification orders to unions. New Brunswick’s public employees have finally won the right to organize.
This victory, however, marks the beginning of an entirely new struggle, as several organizations begin jockeying each individual component for the right to be their representative. Chief amongst them are the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Civil Service Association of New Brunswick. CUPE has a broad, national appeal as well as a distinguished history in Canadian labour. However, the Civil Service Association of New Brunswick has an established local identity and a history of representing New Brunswick’s public service, albeit not as a union.
Furthermore, a deep philosophical divide exists between these two organizations, centering around something often considered fundamental to organized labour—the right to strike. Although CUPE greatly favours the right-to-strike, the NBCSA views it as merely a red-herring that often ends in decreased public support and the employer getting their way. The NBCSA favours instead that binding arbitration be used to settle labour disputes. This philosophical divide manifests itself in the two organizations’ views on the new Public Service Labour Relations Act. While CUPE endorsed the act outright, the NBCSA denounced it, criticize several of its articles and claiming that it was heavily skewed in favour of the government.

Leading the charge for the NBCSA are its new president, J.H.Cyr, and its long-time executive director and voice of the NBCSA Harold Lockhart. One of their first tasks is to find a new name for their organization, as the NBCSA wishes not only to represent civil servants but also other public employees, such as those in schools and hospitals. In August, 1968, the Civil Service Association of New Brunswick officially changes its name to the New Brunswick Public Employees Association, Inc., in order to better reflect the many types of public employees it wishes to represent.
In the final year of the decade, the NBPEA Inc faced another challenge in becoming a bargaining agent. In years prior, the NBPEA Inc., accepted any civil servant as a member—regardless of their position within the civil service. This meant that amongst its membership it had countless non-bargaining employees, such as department managers and supervisors. The Public Sector Labour Relations Board viewed this as an obvious conflict of interest, which prevented the NBPEA Inc from being the bargaining agent for its organized members. In response to this challenge, the NBPEA Inc., appointed a restructuring committee. Chaired by Erma Morrison of Fredericton, the committee was created to investigate how the NBPEA Inc could restructure itself in order to act as a bargaining agent.
Originally, the NBPEA Inc plans to transfer all of its non-bargaining members to a new organization, called the Corporation of Civil Servants. However, this idea is soon scrapped in favour of the reverse; the NBPEA Inc. instead decides to create a new organization for its employees with bargaining status. They name this new organization The New Brunswick Public Employees Association, today known as the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees. NBPEA and NBPEA Inc would work side-by-side, playing complementary roles. Membership in NBPEA meant membership in NBPEA Inc. However, the reverse was not necessarily true.
By December 1st, 1969, the Public Service Labour Relations Act would come into full force, marking the official commencement of collective bargaining in New Brunswick’s public service. In anticipation, NBPEA Inc buys a new office and hires additional staff for its new organization, anticipating the beginning of a new decade, both for the world as a whole and for labour relations in New Brunswick.