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Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) supporters hold up signs along Champlain Street during a strike, in Moncton, New Brunswick on Nov. 1, 2021.JOHN MORRIS/Reuters

New Brunswick’s Premier moved closer to using back-to-work legislation as a strike by thousands of public-sector employees extended into a fourth day, closing schools, cancelling vaccination clinics, delaying surgeries and idling ferry services around the province.

The strike by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing 22,000 educational assistants, lab technicians, social workers, probation officers, mechanics, school bus drivers, jail guards and employees in other fields comes as the province battles a punishing fourth wave of COVID-19.

On Monday, Premier Blaine Higgs cancelled Tuesday’s scheduled Throne Speech in in order to speed up the legislative process to force CUPE members back to work. He said the strike was affecting New Brunswick’s ability to fight the coronavirus, and putting people’s health at risk by causing disruptions at vaccination clinics, COVID-19 assessment centres and in COVID-19 screening at hospitals.

“CUPE is continuing to be unpredictable while having little regard for the health and safety of New Brunswickers and our already strained health care system,” Mr. Higgs said.

“We are currently exploring options for what action is needed to ensure New Brunswickers stay safe and healthy and have access to essential services as we face the challenges of the fourth wave of the pandemic.”

The union, which says the province’s public-sector employees are among the lowest paid in the country, accused the Premier of trying to divide its members and create chaos by locking out even essential workers, some of whom wished to continue working. CUPE’s leaders planned a rally in front of the provincial legislature on Tuesday.

Mr. Higgs, a former finance minister whose approval rating has plunged as cases of COVID-19 have grown this fall, says his government’s latest offer of 10-per-cent wage increases spread over five years would cost the province about $35-million extra each year. The union says it wants 12 per cent over four years.

Families around the province, meanwhile, were left scrambling to find care for their children and teach learn-from-home curriculums distributed by school boards. They’re unfairly stuck in the middle of the labour dispute, opposition political leaders say.

“This is an emergency,” Liberal Leader Roger Melanson told reporters Monday. “This is a situation where our children, our schools, are being taken hostage and the parents are going through very difficult times.”

Some parents urged both sides to get back to the negotiating table, saying they were worried about their children’s mental health during another disruption to school as the pandemic drags on.

“My kids are not pawns to be used in a disagreement between the New Brunswick government and striking CUPE members. I support your right to strike but my responsibility as a parent is to stand up for my kids,” said Jasmine Gagné, a mother of three who lives in Memramcook, N.B.

Ms. Gagné said she was angry at the Premier for locking out educational assistants who were classified as essential workers – a move the province said was necessary to give “stability” to the school system, after many of those EAs began calling in sick once the strike began. Custodians, school bus drivers, school library assistants and administrative support workers have also been locked out.

The gamble for Mr. Higgs in legislating unionized employees back to work is that it risks creating more bad blood between the Progressive Conservative government and thousands of its employees, said J.P. Lewis, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. The public, however, is tired of disruptions that have kept children out of school, and continuing pandemic measures that have affected everyday life, he said.

New Brunswick is in the middle of “circuit breaker” restrictions that have cancelled Thanksgiving and Halloween gatherings months after the province reopened to the rest of country, dropped its mask mandate, and allowed COVID-19 cases to rise again.

“I don’t think there’s much patience for this at all. Both sides in this dispute are in a precarious position in terms of public sympathy. I think there’s fatigue of disruption,” Prof. Lewis said. “But I think the goodwill for this government for its handling of COVID is done.”

Mr. Higgs, a fiscal conservative who won a majority government a year ago, has been criticized by CUPE for holding fast on wage increases after New Brunswick posted a $409-million surplus for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2021. The province is projecting another surplus of $37.7-million this year.

“We’re living in a time of major government spending and major government intervention. So I don’t know if Higgs can win on the argument that we can’t keep paying people,” Prof. Lewis said. “That does not seem to be the political argument of the day.”

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