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Members of CUPE Local 486 hold a news conference in Saint John on Sept. 20, 2023. Image: Brad Perry

Striking Saint John workers seek improved wage offer

By Brad Perry Sep 20, 2023 | 5:17 PM

The union representing Saint John’s striking inside workers said it is concerned for the safety of those needing emergency help.

911 operators and dispatchers in the city’s Public Safety Communication Centre are among the roughly 140 city workers on strike.

Non-unionized staff have been brought in to take over some of the roles those operators would normally perform, such as dispatching first responders.

Mike Davidson, CUPE’s national service representative, said officers have told him they are not getting the proper info when they need it.

“It is a very difficult job to be a dispatcher in that centre, especially when you have 37 other municipalities that you have to take care of,” said Davidson.

Operators typically receive about six months of “intense” training before they are allowed to dispatch, according to Davidson, but the operators currently on the floor only got a two-day training course.

Brittany Doyle, president of CUPE Local 486, said it is her understanding that all 911 calls coming into the Saint John centre are being transferred to Fredericton. Any calls requiring police or fire to be dispatched are then sent back to Saint John.

“There has been an overwhelming amount of calls going to Fredericton. We have heard from other departments who use Fredericton as their 911 centre that there has been delays to their service because of the influx of calls,” said Doyle.

For its part, the City of Saint John and the Saint John Police Force said its contingency plan “has been successful.”

“The implementation of the contingency plan was no small feat, and we commend every individual involved for their unwavering dedication and professionalism,” they said in a statement.

“Although we recognize that our permanent 911 operators and dispatchers cannot be replaced, our assembled team of professionals have stepped up to fill the gaps left by striking employees.”

Doyle told reporters it was a “slap in the face” to hear the city claim success with its contingency plan.

Wages remain main sticking point

There was still no sign of a contract agreement on Wednesday as the union continued to seek more money from the city.

On Friday, the city released details of its most recent offer, which included a zero per cent wage increase in 2022, a 5.35 per cent increase in 2023, 2.1 per cent in 2024 and 2025, and 2.25 per cent in 2026.

In lieu of a wage increase in the first year, the city has offered a $5,000 signing bonus to each member of the union.

“We’ve maintained our position that our wages need to compound. We cannot take zeroes,” said Doyle.

City officials have said the signing bonus would cost taxpayers $710,000, or equivalent to a 5.38 per cent increase.

Instead, CUPE wants a salary increase of 3.04 per cent, which is the wage escalation policy cap for 2022.

“That is the reason why that offer was rejected,” said Davidson about the city offering a signing bonus instead.

“We realize that the $5,000 seems attractive to a lot of people that are just trying to get caught up on their bills, but to get caught up with the rising cost of living, we need it on wages.”

Doyle also disputed the city’s claim that the union did not propose a counteroffer. She would not provide specifics but said it was between the wage escalation policy and the cost of living.

The union said it has no plans to return to the bargaining table until the city improves its wage offer.