While students return to classrooms next week, representatives for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) support workers will be returning to the bargaining table.
Bargaining talks broke off earlier this month after CUPE representatives walked away from the table saying the BC Public School Employers’ Association, the bargaining arm for the boards of education, was unprepared to enter into mediation.
Now, the Ministry of Education has appointed a mediator, spokesperson Peter Cameron, to assist with negotiations between CUPE and the Employers’ Association in Vancouver Wednesday.
Cameron is a labour arbitrator, mediator and former senior official within the B.C. labour movement.
One thing is clear, both sides are hoping for an agreement next week that will avoid disruption in the school year.
CUPE voted in favour of strike action in May, including most of its 230 local members, after a collective agreement with education workers expired over a year ago and no new contract was settled.
“I am the eternal optimist,” said Cherryl MacLeod, CUPE Local 1285 board president. “I truly hope to come back with a deal because this is our last kick at it before we strike.”
If an agreement is not reached job action could happen as soon as mid-September.
“We can’t keep being held off,” said MacLeod. “But we will use the three days to bargain and hope to come back with a deal that can be ratified.”
The Ministry of Education has taken the stance that no more money will be issued to the province’s 60 school districts to cover the two per cent wage increase 27,000 education workers in the K-12 system are asking for.
“The government has been steadfast and not changed its tune one iota,” said Scott Sutherland, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.
“We are trying to stick to a budget, these are difficult times, and the school boards have to find savings in their budgets to pass on to their workers.”
Sutherland said that the situation for now is that support workers union (CUPE) and the provincial bargaining committee will resume negotiations Sept. 4-6.
“The provincial bargaining committee intends to work hard towards an agreement. Lead negotiator, Peter Cameron, remains hopeful that any significant disruptions of schools can be avoided.”
Support education workers fall under the public sector and their wages are governed by the cooperative gains mandate.
In 2012, the Ministry of Finance ruled that all public sector employees whose collective agreements expired on or after Dec. 31, 2011, would fall under the mandate of “cooperative gains.”
The key feature of the mandate is to provide public sector employers the ability to negotiate modest wage increases made possible by productivity increases (savings) within existing budgets.
Meaning, the school district will be responsible to cover any negotiated wage increases within its current budget.
A two per cent increase to CUPE workers puts SD20 on the line for $136,000, which is not just one time money, but on-going.
“The government has downloaded the cost of wage increases onto the school district before,” said Darrel Ganzert, SD20 board chair.
“What that would mean, plain and simple, is more job losses.”
Patrick Audet, principal of Glenmerry Elementary School, said that CUPE members are critical to the school’s team and if they are not at work, school lives will be very, very difficult.
Audet explained that CUPE employees work with kids requiring extra help and use that first month of school as a time to bond, adding that bus drivers, responsible for transportation of children as young as five, are an integral part of safety and security for the young students.
In addition, September is laden with paperwork, in particular enrolment forms, which CUPE administrative workers are required to forward to the Ministry of Education.
“This is an important task because the forms have to be completed in a certain way to confirm enrolment,” he said. “That information our CUPE members send to the Ministry determines the funding we receive for each student for the entire year.”
CUPE represents school bus drivers, custodians, clericals, maintenance, tech and trades, education assistants, childcare and youth workers, and aboriginal education employees.
Teachers won’t cross picket lines
If an agreement is not reached, September could be a month of havoc for students if CUPE initiates strike action.
Andy Davidoff, president of the Kootenay Columbia Teachers Union, confirmed that if legal picket lines are set up on school grounds, teachers will honour the job action and not cross the lines.
“It would be pretty tough to see the school system operating because CUPE members drive us, clean our schools and work with teachers in the classroom. They are an integral component of the educational system,” he said, adding, “I have to make this very clear, teachers will honour a (legal) CUPE picket line.”