Higgs once praised ‘reasonable’ union wages, which he now says are too high

New Brunswick Prime Minister Blaine Higgs is critical of what he says are high salaries for striking civil servants, but in reality they were higher six years ago after increases that Higgs himself approved as finance minister.

He praised the higher rates at the time as “fair to both employees and taxpayers.”

That is not the position he has taken recently as the labor dispute, which has put thousands of New Brunswick state employees in several local unions up against the province, drags on its fifth day.

A key issue in the confrontation, according to labor historian and professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick, David Frank, is what, if anything, should be done about eroding employees’ wages as a result of inflation.

“Do we want them to have good jobs … or do we want services at the cheapest possible price?” Frank said in an interview with CBC News on Monday.

“Of course there is a difference, and CUPE’s negotiating position is that real wages should not fall in the light of inflation.”

More than 20,000 unionized New Brunswick state employees in several CUPE locals are trapped in the labor dispute. (Patrick Lacelle / Radio-Canada)

‘It’s easy to argue for inflation’: Higgs

Last Friday, when the strike began, Higgs said it should not be a problem because public sector wages and benefits are better than those available from private employers and can withstand some erosion.

“Wages are very good in the public sector,” Higgs told CBC News, explaining why matching the cost of living is not an issue he sympathizes with.

“I know it’s easy to argue for inflation,” he said. “But that’s where you start. And what I see here is that they start at a very strong level.”

Higgs seemed to blame former New Brunswick governments for allowing employees’ wages to escalate, even though he had a direct hand in guiding the issue for several years.

As finance minister in David Alward’s formerly progressive conservative government, Higgs was involved in approving wage rates, which he now complains are too high, even though they are actually lower now than where he left them.

In June 2013, the Alward government signed a four-year deal with hospital workers in CUPE Local 1252, one of the unions involved in the current battle. That agreement entailed a two-year pay cut followed by two years with two percent increases.

The contract expired in June 2015 after the Alward government was defeated and employee salaries have shrunk significantly in real terms since then due to inflation.

Local 1252 signed another four-year deal after 2015 with the former Liberal government of Brian Gallant, which included a series of increases of a total of 4.1 percent.

But the consumer price index in New Brunswick has risen 13.5 percent since then.

This makes the salary levels in 2014 and 2015 for CUPE Local 1252, which was set during Higgs’ term as finance minister, richer than the current levels.

CUPE New Brunswick President Steve Drost says government employees’ wages have been eroded in recent years by inflation. (Jacques Poitras / CBC News)

Similar cases for educational staff

It is a similar case with educational staff in CUPE Local 2745, who are also caught in the current battle.

They signed a four-year deal with the Alward government in 2011, with salaries that Higgs at the time praised as reasonable for all sides. Their wage rates are now lower in real terms than they were when that contract expired in 2015.

“The key aspect of this agreement, from our perspective, is that it respects the wage limitation policy, which provides two years of zero increases followed by increases of two percent in each of the last two years,” Higgs said at the time. .

“By working together in this negotiation process, both parties have proven that we can reach an agreement that is fair to our valued public servants while still respecting New Brunswick’s fiscal policy challenges.”

Higgs has not said why wages he once hailed as reasonable are now thought to be too high, especially after being shrunk by inflation. But David Frank said the view the public ultimately takes on the pay issue will play a big role in which side goes back.

“Public reactions to these two visions may have some effect on what the government and unions decide to do,” Frank said.

CUPE is asking for a total wage increase of 12 percent over four years.

The province briefly offered 10 percent over five years, but reduced it to 8.5 percent when union negotiators turned down the offer.

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