For the second time in three years, labour action could disrupt the school year, only this time it is support staff workers that are threatening to go on strike.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents more than 27,000 school support staff workers across B.C., is threatening to go on strike if negotiations continue to stall on a new contract.
“If the government doesn’t show a commitment to bargaining, our members will take full scale job action,” said Colin Pawson, chair of the CUPE BC K-12 President’ Council. “They’re frustrated that we’ve had three false starts to negotiating, and the clock is ticking.”
CUPE represents workers such as custodians, librarians, clerical staff, bus drivers and education assistants.
The union’s last collective bargaining agreement expired more than a year ago and the support staff have been without a contract ever since.
On the employer’s side, the government has taken over negotiations and has appointed Peter Cameron to represent the government at the bargaining table.
Jean Frolek, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 523, which covers Revelstoke, said CUPE walked away from bargaining because the B.C. government’s negotiator was unable to discuss wage increases.
In recent negotiations with public sector unions, the B.C. government has imposed a collective gains mandate that stipulates any wage increases must come from savings found within that sector. Last winter, school districts were asked to identify budget reductions to fund potential CUPE contract increases, however, school boards claimed there was no money to be found and refused to complete the exercise.
Alan Chell, the chair of the Revelstoke Board of Education, said another round of bargaining is scheduled for Sept. 4–6 in order to establish a provincial framework for an agreement that can then be taken back to the local unions. “Both parties would hope during that three-day period that we would be able to establish a provincial framework,” said Chell.
He is hopeful an agreement can be reached and said support staff workers make important contributions to the education system and the union’s demands for a wage increase are valid. At the same time, the province has allocated no money to cover a wage increase, so savings will have to be found elsewhere in the budget, either by re-allocating funding or by finding efficiencies in other parts of the contract.
“There’s a lot of potential sources for money, but the two things that are absolutely clear is there is expectation for wage increase and there will be no new money added,” he said. “It’s up to the parties take it from there and reach an agreement.”