St. Stephen – It was standing room only as a rally for People’s Alliance Saint Croix by-election candidate, Rod Cumberland, kicked off at the Garcelon Civic Center on Saturday with approximately 180 people trying to crowd into a room initially set up for 70, which was then expanded to 140.
Among those were approximately 18 nursing home workers led by Minerva Porelle, the secretary treasurer of New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, with the support of Council President Sharon Teare.
Although the union represents 4,100 nursing home workers across the province, the group on Saturday represented a much more local interest with workers from Lincourt Manor in St. Stephen, and Passamaquoddy Lodge in Saint Andrews, joined by workers from Campobello, Grand Manan, and Blacks Harbour.
“This is our ground,” said Porelle.
As the room reached capacity, People’s Alliance Executive Director, Frank Mullin, asked the workers to leave, to allow others to come in.
As complaints rang out, the workers explained they live and work in the riding of Saint Croix. A folding wall was removed and more chairs were brought in to accommodate, not just the workers, but the many people in the hall waiting to get in.
As party leader Kris Austin was speaking about paramedics, a shout from a nursing home worker caused a disturbance.
“Now I gave you a chance. Didn’t I give you a chance? Now you can just leave.” responded Austin.
“We have fought for three years for a collective agreement, fighting for the residents and nursing home owners of New Brunswick,’ said Porelle from outside the room, who went onto accuse the People’s Alliance of doing nothing but “pulling the rug out from under us.”
“They traded the license plate on the front of your vehicle for nursing home workers.”
Porelle made an impassioned plea the issue is not just about money, but about workload.
Staff shortages across the province lead to empty beds. Beds that could be filled by people who are now housed in overcrowded hospitals.
After the workers had left the room Austin continued on his prepared notes before returning to the issue of nursing home workers.
“I understand the workload that you take on, I know your jobs are tough,” said Austin to the empty seats, before going on to stress he knows government needs to fix the workload in nursing homes.
Referencing a report from the language commissioner, Austin made clear the language in nursing homes should be that of the community in which it is based. It was an issue that they were prepared to withdraw support for the governing Conservatives, and possibly bring the government down on.
But language was not the issue for the workers. At issue for the nursing home workers is Bill 17, An Act to Amend the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act. It was a bill that created restricted binding arbitration. On December 20, 2019 the MLAs voted for the bill in return for reclassification of the paramedics who are part of the same union alleges the union.
“The bill was there to knock the feet out from under the nursing home workers.” Teare said. “This party had many meeting with us, and told us one thing, and did another.”
Teare acknowledged the PANB and PCNB may not agree with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). “You have to see past the union affiliation and see the people.”
“I think what you need is a good elected representative, politician, representing New Brunswick, regardless of their political affiliation.” said Teare
Taking the podium Cumberland started his remarks with an apology. “First and foremost I would like to apologize to the black shirted people who were here before” referring to the nursing home workers who sported black t-shirts with yellow lettering expressing solidarity. “I’m here to listen to anybody.”
Later Cumberland expanded on the issue saying, “I have tremendous respect and compassion for nursing home workers. My son’s wife has worked in this setting and we have discussed their struggle for fair wages and the difficult situations this work presents for staff to ensure safety and well-being of the residents.
“Fortunately, I was at the legislature last fall for Bill 17, and I am always open and willing to meet with area residents and nursing home workers to listen to their concerns and provide information on the changes that I know about first hand.”
Cumberland is in the process of arranging visits to Lincourt and Passamaquoddy nursing homes to discuss their situation and the challenges they face. “This is one of many health care issues I am very interested in which will take concerted and cooperative effort to solve.”
Charlotte County native Teare admitted she does not personally know Cumberland, “I am sure he is a pretty good guy, the unfortunate part is he is running for the wrong party.”