Will a potential strike affect snow plowing in rural areas?

GNB photo Members of CUPE 1190 are currently in negotiations with the Province of New Brunswick, with the biggest issues being a wage increase to meet the current standard of living, and getting better wages and benefits for casual workers. The possibility of a strike worries some due to the fact that the union members are the plow operators for the province, but union President Brent Wiggins said he will never allow it to go so far as to pull plow operators off the roads.

St. Stephen

With each snow storm in New Brunswick, residents can thank plow operators for ensuring that the roads are safe to travel. Just imagine if there were no plow operators working, and the roads are a greasy mess. That’s what some people are worried about if members of CUPE 1190 General Labour & Trades decide to go on strike.

Minister of Transportation, Bill Oliver, said if there were to be a strike, the impact would be “minimal”, but at this time he doesn’t want to speculate on a strike. He said he hasn’t really heard much talk of it, at least not in his presence, but it may be something union members are talking about. He did admit everyone needs to be prepared for the possibility, but hopes they can come to an agreement.

“I don’t want to speculate on whether there’s a strike,” said Oliver. “Hopefully the union and the treasury board will continue to talk and work things out, and we won’t have any interuptions.”

CUPE 1190 President Brent Wiggins said at the moment, they are waiting for a decision from the labor board on a “couple of outstanding issues”, and they would prefer to come to an agreement rather than strike. But, if there is a strike, he said New Brunswick residents have little to worry about this winter.

“We are trying to get to the membership for a vote on what’s being offered to us,” said Wiggins. “Right now we’re at a standstill. At the moment, I can’t see any disruption in plowing. We’ve been out of a contract since December, 2017. It’s been a long road in the process. We started out with a Liberal government, and now we have Conservatives with the same results, up to a point where there was no mandate. We never got the mandate until we forced our hand and went to the conciliation.”

Wiggins said they are asking for a 5 per cent pay increase per year, for five years. Over the past 12 years, the wages have not increased enough to meet the cost of living, and Wiggins said the workers have all “gone behind by at least 20 per cent”. Their employer, the Province of New Brunswick, came back with an offer of .5 percent every six months for four years.

“The first six months is zero,” said Wiggins. “Then, .5 percent, and that doesn’t even add up to one percent. The board came back with the recommendation, by looking at financial information and everything provided to them, and they recommended that it would be three percent for four years, which would work out to 12.”

Wiggins said the union members would be “very glad to accept something like that”, and they aren’t looking for the sky. Even though the number is not what they originally asked for, it would get them heading in the right direction. But, this was not binding, and the Province didn’t accept this counter offer.

Another issue is also coming into play – casual workers are terminated each year. At the end of their contracts, they are finished, and they have no connection to the employer after that.

“But, the employer is trying to change that around, saying that they are, which would be great because that’s always been our argument. These are mostly people who work in the parks, and they go back every year. The biggest problem with these folks is that they only get pad 80 per cent of the wage of the classification. On top of that, they have no benefits under the collective agreement. That’s a kick in the butt.”

Wiggins said those casual workers are important and much-needed. When the winter maintenance program was first introduced, the union wasn’t “really on board with it”, but it forced their hands. It was happening whether they wanted it or not. Initially, it was supposed to create a work balance for snow plow operators. But, he said drivers are now getting to a point where they are “tired, played out, and impaired by fatigue”. So, the plan was created where there would be a certain amount of equipment in each of the maintenance sheds, and there would be two on-call and two or three spare workers so there could be a rotation of people.

“Over time, they’ve taken the less men so those times where a person could get refueled is not there anymore,” said Wiggins. “They just never brought any back. They got rid of them, and there was a part in the snow fighters’ policy that said for every three snow units or plow units there would be a spare. They don’t go that way anymore. There are no more spares.”

Minister Oliver said no matter what happens, most roads in the province will always be maintained. The problem comes down to when they can maintain, meaning that not all roads are going to be given the same amount of attention, and that little is going to change, even in the event of a strike.

“We have to prioritize the roads,” said Oliver. “So, roads that are not as traveled where the traffic count is down, we wouldn’t plow those roads until a little bit later, because we have to take the priority roads, the ones that have the high volume. We want to make sure they get plowed first. Then, we’d move on to the secondary roads, and so on. So, the levels of roads would dictate when they get serviced, as they do now.”

A departmental email sent to some MLA’s representing the rural ridings said if there was to be a strike by unionized plow operators, a number of lower volume roads would be plowed only after storms were over. Wiggins said it is a burden on operators who want to be out there to ensure roads are as safe as possible for everyone to travel on.

“I travel the roads. My family travels the roads,” said Wiggins. “It’s enough of a burden on operators who want to be out there. I used to plow years ago, and your heart sinks when you’ve made a pass and you come back and there’s somebody off the road. You kind of wonder, ‘what more could I have done’. I hate seeing stuff like that happen.”

“It’s not a matter of cutting services. It’s a matter of how we plan it and how much time it takes to get the work done,” said Oliver.

Oliver said the province will continue to negotiate with the union, and there will not be a disruption in service, particularly on major thoroughfares. He said there are enough plow operators in the province, and they are “running at about 95 per cent” of their assets who are out on the road at any given time. In the event of a strike, there will continue to be plow operators, and members of the public don’t have to worry about traveling on unsafe roads. According to Wiggins, plowing is just one of many issues.

“To use our possible strike on using it to make people concerned about roads getting plowed and stuff like that, I would never let that happen. The guys are still going to have to go out and do what they do.”

sarigreen@stcroixcourier.ca