Thursday, October 15, 2020

History of the NBU: Part 2

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 second installment details the 1970s. The first piece detailed the years prior to 1970 and can be found here. A special thank you to Alex Wentzell for his work researching and writing these stories.
The First Decade (1970-80)
The 1970s marked both an incredibly triumphant and difficult time for what was then known as the New Brunswick Public Employees Association. On the one hand, this decade marked the beginning of the Association’s existence as a bargaining agent for its members. But on the other hand, this brought along with it a whole slew of new challenges in an incredibly difficult bargaining environment.
Between January 19th and February 2nd, the Public Sector Labour Relations Board begins accepting applications for certification for the various bargaining components in the public sector. It marks the culmination of many years of persistence from New Brunswick’s organized labour, but also marks the beginning of a new struggle.
On April 30th, 1970, the board of directors officially ratified the New Brunswick Public Employees organization, bringing it into existence. Two weeks later, on May 16th, the delegates to the 18th annual meeting of NBPEA Inc. ratified the new organization’s constitution and elected its first president, J. Charles Savoy of Chatham. In addition, NBPEA Inc transferred its executive director, Harold Lockhart, to the new organization to serve the same role. On a national level, the NBPEA affiliated itself with the Canadian Federation of Government Employee Unions.
The NBPEA wasted little time getting to work, and on August 24th, 1970, the organization signed its first two collective agreements, for its Resource Services unit and its Drafting and Graphic Arts unit.
Despite the historical significance of these agreements, they also marked another instance of an issue that would plague the NBPEA throughout the decade. The rivalry between CUPE and NBPEA did not end with the granting of certification orders. CUPE was soon to denounce the collective agreements, claiming that the NBPEA had sold out its members to the government. Their leadership stood outside of the NBPEA office and chanted “Sold-out.” At one point, NBPEA executive director Harold Lockhart even wrestled a placard away from one of the protesters. This is just another example of the back-and-forth competition between these two organizations, a trend that continued throughout much of the next decade.
On June 13th of this year, the NBPEA reached yet another milestone, as it held its first ever annual meeting. Delegates agreed to a dues increase, bringing the monthly cost for each member to $3.50. By this date, the NBPEA represented 3,500 public employees across 13 categories.
Nineteen-seventy-two marked a continuation of the struggle between CUPE and the NBPEA. Both organizations attempted to raid the other. NBPEA sought to pull away some 3000 members of the General Labour and Trades unit from CUPE, while CUPE tried to do the same with NBPEA’s General Labour and Trades Supervisory Unit. Neither would be successful. The NBPEA was able, however, to recruit to staff members away from CUPE to join its office in Fredericton.
Another problem presented itself to the NBPEA in 1972, as its national affiliate, the Canadian Federation of Government Employee Organizations, officially folded by the end of the year. The NBPEA had tried to join the Canadian Labour Congress as an independent organization, but were subsequently denied when CUPE protested the move on the grounds that they were the union which should be representing New Brunswick. The combination of these two events meant that, for the first time in its brief history, the NBPEA had no national affiliation.
Nineteen-seventy-three began with a first for the NBPEA: one of its units went on strike. Upset with lengthy contract discussions, partly due to delays from the employer in seeking an opinion from the conciliation board, three quarts of the Paramed unit of the NBPEA walked off the job on February 14th. The strike lasted over a month, when, on March 29th, NBPEA and treasury board reached an agreement. By April 20th, the agreement is officially ratified and the Paramed unit is back to work.
Midway through the year, the NBPEA experienced yet another first: At the year’s annual meeting, the delegates elected a new president of the NBPEA. Jack Ivey of Moncton became president, succeeding J. Charles Savoy.
Although 1974 was a quiet year for the association, it was not so for the greater state of the economy. Beginning in 1974, western economies began experiencing what is commonly referred to as “stagflation.” The dominant economic theories of the time prescribed that periods of high unemployment led to low inflation, and vice-versa. What was experienced in 1974 and throughout the latter portion of the 1970s was both high unemployment and high inflation rates. The cost of living began to rise rapidly, and jobs were terribly hard to come by. This state of affairs rendered collective bargaining to be highly challenging.
In early April of 1975, the NBPEA endured yet another raid by its rival provincial organization, CUPE. CUPE, having just negotiated an attractive wage increase for some of its own units, attempted to lure away two of NBPEA’s units under the guise of doing the same for them. In particular, CUPE targeted the Clerical & Regulatory and Secretarial, Stenographic and Typing unit. The raid failed, and both groups remained with the NBPEA by signing their respective contracts in June of the same year.
Nineteen-seventy-five saw yet another strike within the ranks of the NBPEA. Members of the Resource Services unit, upset with the salary discrepancy between themselves and equivalent workers in other provinces, went on strike. At midnight on Saturday, October 18th, just in time for the beginning of hunting season, the unit left their posts with the goal of getting a fair wage. The strike lasted six weeks before the Resource Services unit returned to work with contract talks still ongoing.

In 1976, the NBPEA came head to head with the harsh economic realities of the time. The Resource Services bargaining unit finally reached a settlement with treasury board. After months of unsuccessful negotiations, both sides agreed to let an arbitration tribunal determine an appropriate salary schedule for the employees. The results were largely in the NBPEA’s favour, securing a salary increase for several classifications, including the long dissatisfied forest rangers. Some of these increases were as high as 21 per cent.
However, this victory soon ran into another roadblock, in the form of the Anti-Inflation Board. The AIB was established in mid-1975 in response to rapidly rising inflation rates. One of its primary avenues for decreasing inflation was to rollback wage increases negotiated by public and private sector unions. Four components of the NBPEA, including the Resource Services Unit, were targeted, resulting in their recently fought-for wage increases being effectively cut in half.
Another development in 1976 was the creation of the National Union of Public and General Employees. Founded as the “spokesperson for provincial government workers within the Canadian Labour Congress,” pressure was immediately put on the NBPEA to join its ranks. The organization would not be rash, however, setting up a committee to study the pros and cons of the move.
The year 1977 saw some positive progress made for the NBPEA. It had spent the better part of the last year appealing the AIB ruling through various channels, and in 1977 the NBPEA finally saw the culmination of those efforts. The AIB, on appeal, reversed some wage rollbacks that it originally enforced.
At the year’s general meeting, it was decided that the NBPEA would lobby the provincial government to replace the right to strike with binding arbitration. It had long been the position of the NBPEA that the right-to-strike was detrimental to labour, but now the association would put that belief into action. Harold Lockhart, the long-time executive director of the NBPEA, viewed strike actions as “harmful to everyone,” and long favoured binding arbitration. This resolution was largely criticized by other labour organizations, resulting in the NBPEA further distancing itself from its fellow employee organizations. Joan Blacquier, a CUPE representative from Fredericton, didn’t pull punches in her dismissal of NBPEA: “Anti-labour and terribly irresponsible...Mr. Lockhart’s NBPEA is a tiny association in the province, representing fewer than 4,000 people, who have been extremely incapable of negotiating with treasury board, their employers, because of the weakness of the organization....NBPEA is not recognized by the trade union movement...CUPE is vehemently opposed to any intrusion by government into the free collective bargaining process, including the right to strike.”
The final two years of the decade were business as usual for the association, as it continued to act on behalf of its members with little news of note. One noteworthy happening came in late 1979, when the Association instituted its liaison officer training program for the first time. This program ensured a consistent set of guiding principles for liaison officers, allowing them to give the best service possible to the membership of the NBPEA.