Three New Brunswick Court of Appeal judges have reserved their decision in a legal dispute between the province and its more 4,000 nursing home workers concerning the union’s right to a strike.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the province and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) argued whether a lower court justice had erred in a decision that would’ve allowed the workers to walk off the job.

Christian Michaud, the province’s lawyer, argued the lower court had made mistakes in their decision as the justice’s analysis seemed to have been done in the context of a labour dispute, while Canadian Union of Public Employees lawyer Joel Michaud argued the lower courts exercised judicial discretion and properly took public interest into account when deciding to allow a strike.

In the end, the three justices reserved their decision for a later date and maintained a stay in the case, which temporarily prevents a strike action. There is no timetable for the ruling.

“We’re stalled again, waiting and waiting, adding to the months we already have waited,” Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, told reporters outside the courthouse in Fredericton.

Christian Michaud said the province looks forward “to the results of this and determining what other steps are required once we have that decision.

The union is ultimately fighting a provincial regulation that considers nursing home workers as an essential service, thus preventing them from taking a strike action.

The New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes says the law is required to ensure nursing home residents receive the level of care they require to maintain a quality of life, but if the lower court’s decision is upheld, the union will be allowed to walk off the job.

This would leave families across the province scrambling to find proper care for their loved ones. Such is the case forRon Bruce, whose wife Lynn lives in a Fredericton-area facilityas she battles Alzheimer’s disease.

Bruce told CTV News he’s worried about how his wife will be cared for in the event of a strike, but adds he stands behind the workers. 

"I think they need a contract and they need a living wage, so if it comes to a strike I support them,” he said. “I'd bite the bullet and make it through until they settled it."

CUPE is asking for a 20-per-cent raise over the next four years, while New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs countered with a four-per-cent raise. He has also denied the union’s request for binding arbitration in the dispute.

"It's basically a law of averages,” he told reporters. “We're at four, they're at 20 and we end up with 12, and then that resets the clock for all the other negotiations."

Higgs acknowledges nursing home employees in New Brunswick make less than those in other provinces, but says the union’s demands would cost $28 million -- simply too rich for a poor province.


Wednesday’s proceedings are just the latest in a multi-year saga involving the nurses’ right to strike that began in 2013 when the provincial labour board decided 90 per cent of nursing home employees were essential to the lives of residents in those facilities.

The union then fought the decision, stating the high number of essential employees breached their freedom of association rights, and eventually won in December 2018.

In early March, the labour board decided all nursing home employees had the right to strike, but the government then asked for a judicial review in the December 2018 decision and a stay in the matter, which temporarily halted the union’s strike plans.

Just over a week later, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Paulette Garnett lifted the temporary stay in the case, but it was quickly reinstated as the province appealed the decision, which led to Wednesday’s hearing.

“It has been a drawn-out process, there’s no question about it,” said Joel Michaud. “There have been many, many hearings. More hearings than we should have had.”

The judicial review of the 2018 labour board ruling is scheduled for May 24.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Laura Lyall