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ST. JOHN’S, Nfld. — The government of Newfoundland and two unions representing more than 19,000 public-sector workers are at loggerheads in a walkout that could cripple the province’s economy.

The strike, the largest in Newfoundland history, began yesterday and is basically a fight over wages and pensions.

The strike includes highway road-maintenance workers and snow-removal crews. Ominously, weather forecasts are calling for a new snowstorm to hit the island this afternoon.

Finance Minister Joan Marie Aylward called a news conference last night to say government’s last-minute offer of a 13 per cent wage increase over three years was its final one.

“Moving from nine per cent to 13 per cent … is a very significant move,” Aylward told reporters at Confederation Building. “I challenge them to match that anywhere in this country.”

Union leaders were adamant it will take nothing less than a 15 per cent boost to bring down the pickets, which went up early Sunday.

“The message is that (Premier Roger Grimes) is not going to negotiate, it’s either his way or the highway,” said Tom Hanlon, head of the Newfoundland Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE).

“Well, we’re on the highway. There was only 613 people voted for Roger Grimes. I had 8,000 people vote for me.”

Hundreds of striking employees in parkas and snowsuits huddled in cold, wet weather over crackling oil-drum fires across the province Sunday. And thousands were expected to march on Confederation Hill this morning.

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