Tuesday, October 27, 2020

History of the NBU: Part 4

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 fourth installment details the 1990s. The first piece detailed the years prior to 1970 and can be found here. The second article looked at the 1970s and the third put a spotlight on the 1980s. A special thank you to Alex Wentzell for his work researching and writing these stories.
The Third Decade (1990-99)
The early years of the decade brought to the forefront a problem facing organized labour for several years: wage restraint. While the notion of public sector wage restraint was not a new one, it found a determined champion in New Brunswick’s Premier Frank McKenna. McKenna differed greatly in his approach, however. Whereas past governments sought to negotiate 0 per cent wage increases into collective agreements, McKenna instead passed legislation that extended all union contracts by 1 year with a 0 per cent wage increase, under the guise of fiscal responsibility. Public sector unions were outraged. They saw McKenna’s move as undemocratic and made in bad faith. Furthermore, McKenna’s move violated the principle of free collective bargaining, since the one-year freeze was not allowed to be considered when negotiating future wage hikes.
There was a persistent worry amongst NB’s labour movement that McKenna’s wage restraint policies would continue beyond the one-year mark. Although McKenna did make some concessions after thousands of workers protested the legislation, they did little to halt the worry.
These developments lead to a rare unification amongst NB’s labour organizations. Although they had a long history of infighting, a common enemy in the form of Frank McKenna brought CUPE and the NBPEA together as members of the newly formed Coalition of Government Employee Unions, a group which contained all of the some 30,000 public employees of the province. Opinions differed within the group, however, as to the best way to oppose the wage freeze. While members of CUPE took a more militant approach, planning general strikes across the province, the NBPEA did not participate, instead choosing to focus on long term public relation campaigns to win the public’s support.
The tensions between public sector unions and the McKenna government grew even more in the following year, with the introduction of the controversial Bill-42. The act legislated wage increases to 3 per cent over the next two years, effectively quashing any wage increase agreed to in past collective agreements over the time period. Again, a stark contrast arose between the reactions of NB’s public sector unions. In early June, CUPE and the NBNU, representing some 26,000 provincial workers—most with rather lucrative wage increases kyboshed by Bill-42—went on strike, virtually freezing all public services in the province.
Absent from the strike actions were the members of the NBPEA. In a move reminiscent of the association’s early philosophical principles, the NBPEA membership rejected strike action, viewing it as a lose-lose action. The outcome of the strike action seemed to vindicate that point of view. The NBNU accepted a last-minute deal, never making it to the picket line, which saw them accept wage increases well below negotiated amounts. Meanwhile, CUPE was legislated back to work after a four-day strike that resulted in eroding public support. They ended up accepting a bizarre agreement that included making a $700,000 interest-free loan to the provincial government in order to cover the costs of wage increases, as well as accepting a 21-month extension of existing contracts at a 3 per cent wage increase.
The NBPEA negotiated a different deal. In the face of a ballooning deficit, McKenna’s attempt to preserve his fiscally savvy image saw him promote the wage-freezes as the only possible alternative to mass layoffs in the public service. Despite McKenna framing the issue this way, mass layoffs still occurred throughout the public service, with some 2000 jobs lost by 1994. Given the uncertainty of McKenna’s labour approach (he promised a more collaborative approach when originally elected in 1987—three years before failing to honour union contracts) the NBPEA provided the provincial government with an ultimatum: they would accept the imposed wage freeze if the government promised to pay out their employees’ salaries even when positions are eliminated. The government accepted, and the NBPEA was able to secure job security for its membership for the next two years.
In this year, the NBPEA got a new president. Elected to the position was Ian MacMichael of Moncton. He became the NBPEA’s 6th president, succeeding Michael Mackinnon.
These two years marked business as usual for the NBPEA, as it continued to struggle with the McKenna government’s policies towards privatization and labour relations.
Nineteen-ninety-six saw the board of directors launch The Newsbrunswicker, a regular news letter to membership, as a way to improve communication between all aspects of the NBPEA.
The final three years of the decade marked a period of rapid change for the NBPEA. In 1997, the association saw itself placed in the opposite of its usual position: early in the year, the association’s staff unionized, forming the New Brunswick Public Employees Staff Union, to better represent themselves in their dealings with the employer. Despite some civil disagreements regarding exclusions, the NBPEA welcomed unionization amongst the office staff.
Later in the year, the NBPEA’s executive director Donald Macpherson was fired after 8 years on the job. Macpherson had taken the position during a turbulent period for the NBPEA and provided stability for the better part of the decade. However, in late 1997 he and the NBPEA parted ways, leaving the position vacant as the New Year commenced.
This year saw two new names take on the top two positions in the NBPEA. First, in early 1998 the NBPEA hired Tom Mann to be its new executive director. Previously the executive director of the NBNU, Mann brought years of experience and a seasoned voice to the position.
Later in the year, tragedy struck the NBPEA, as its president Ian MacMichael passed away suddenly. MacMichael had served in the role for the past five years, and his passing was met with total shock from all aspects of the NBPEA. Assuming the role of president in the wake of his passing was Debora Lacelle. Lacelle had previously served as the 1st VP of the Union, being elected to the post during the past year. She became the first female president of the NBPEA.
Change continued for the NBPEA in the final year of the decade, as the association moved out of its office on 238 King Street, Fredericton, after an oil spill rendered the building uninhabitable. The King Street office housed the association since 1972. The Association moved one block over, into a newer building at 217 Brunswick Street, Fredericton, where it still is today.
In mid-1999, the Association encountered something it hadn’t dealt for over 20 years: a strike. After 18 months of unsuccessful negotiations, members of the Pharmacy, Mental, Physical and Rehabilitation unit (today known as the Specialised Health Care Professionals Unit) voted overwhelmingly for a strike action. On June 8th, 1999, they walked off the job and onto the picket lines. Two months later, they reached a deal with the government after the board management made several concessions.