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Striking health-care workers back to work in New Brunswick

Striking health-care workers in New Brunswick, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, are complying with the province’s back-to-work order, union leaders say.

The order announced by the justice minister on Friday impacts health-care workers in locals 1252, 1190 and 1251, which represent support staff in vaccination clinics and hospitals, and those providing laundry services to hospitals and nursing homes.

“They decided that they were going back to work this morning because it was an order,” said Norma Robinson, the president of Local 1252. 

Robinson’s local represents support staff and maintenance workers in hospitals, including over 2,000 who have been ordered back to work.

The local has about 9,000 members in all, including 70 per cent who have already been working throughout the strike since they were deemed essential by the province.

Over 200 laundry workers are also impacted by the order, in addition to 48 workers in the supply chain that supports hospitals. 

“I just want to express how frustrated and angry our members are with the application of the Emergency Measures Act,” said Chris Curran, the president of the local representing laundry workers.

“Members feel like they’ve been cheated of their right to strike.”

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Thousands of striking and locked-out public-sector workers and supporters gathered at the legislature in Fredericton on Tuesday. (Miriam Lafontaine/CBC)

Hospitals never reached out to his local to say the services at the hospitals were reaching emergency levels, Curran said, and workers would have been willing to step in if it was needed.

The order, which is separate from the existing COVID-19 mandatory order, only applies to striking workers in the health-care field. School staff, jail guards, court stenographers and others on strike are not affected and can continue strike action.

Hefty fines for non-compliance 

Health-care workers who fail to show up to work when scheduled could face fines ranging from $480 to $20,400 per day. Those encouraging workers to strike could also face fines. 

“In addition, CUPE will be fined a minimum of $100,000 for each day that a worker does not comply with the mandatory order,” the province wrote in a statement issued Friday. 

Under the order, hospitals can assign non-bargaining employees or contract the work elsewhere to ensure the continuation of services if necessary, the statement added.

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N.B. Public Safety Minister and Attorney General Ted Flemming announced Friday that his government was using the Emergency Measures Act to force striking health-care workers back to work at midnight Friday. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

At a press conference Friday afternoon, the CEOs of the province’s two health authorities said they asked for the order out of concern for patients, including many who have had urgent surgeries cancelled. 

By early afternoon on Saturday, both health authorities sent out press releases welcoming the workers back. The Vitalité Health Network said the situation at hospitals is already improving — and over the coming days they’ll work to increase hospital capacity for surgeries.

The province says it has not heard any reports from either health networks regarding employees not showing up to their shifts, according to a release shared Saturday.

Robinson said some of her members have been turned away from their hospital shifts by management despite being scheduled, including many in the Campbellton region.

“They were informed this morning they were not included in this mandatory order,” she said.

The CBC has since reached out to Vitalité for comment. 

CUPE considers legal options

CUPE president Steve Drost said even though health-care workers are complying with the order, the union’s lawyers are looking into how they could challenge it.

There are already laws in place to ensure essential workers stay on the job during strike action, he emphasized, saying the mandatory order is outrageous.

“It’s simply a tool that was used to interfere with these members’ legal rights,” Drost said in an afternoon press conference on Saturday. 

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Steve Drost, president of CUPE New Brunswick, spoke at an afternoon press conference on Saturday. (CBC)

The union has also been scrambling to figure out who the order applies to among their members. 

“The unions have been complying with this order, but there certainly are a lot of questions about who it applies to and who it doesn’t apply to,” Drost added in an interview.

The province has yet to respond to the union’s counter-offer that was shared following talks on Friday, the union said. 

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