School District 20 employees who keep Greater Trail schools clean, safe and inclusive have voted to strike after contract negotiations for a higher wage hit a wall last month.
Eighty-nine per cent of Canadian Union of Public Employees’ 230 local members voted in favour of strike action early this month and await further direction from CUPE Local 1285 board president Cherryl MacLeod.
She is in the midst of connecting with School District 20’s support workers to explain what was decided at a meeting in Vancouver last week when all 57 CUPE presidents met to plot a strategy moving forward.
“I’m not saying we’re going to do something in Castlegar and Trail by the end of June that will be disruptive,” she told the Times. “It might be an information line, it might be a study session. There are all kinds of things we could do.”
CUPE represents school bus drivers, custodians, clericals, maintenance, tech and trades, education assistance, childcare and child and youth care workers and aboriginal-education employees. The average wage for a CUPE K-12 worker is $24,000 a year, according to a CUPE press release.
The local is looking to send a message, following contract negotiations that didn’t result in what the union calls “job security” or a pay increase – a raise that hasn’t occurred since 2009.
A similar story is being heard across the province. BC Public School Employers’ Association, the bargaining arm for boards of education, met with union representatives from the 57 unions banded together over the winter and into the spring.
More than half of these locals have now taken local strike votes with the rest expected to be completed by the end of June.
“I’m happy that the strike votes are going well but I’m just as frustrated,” said MacLeod. “We don’t want anything unreasonable. We don’t want anything more than other public sector groups have achieved and we don’t understand why we’re being singled out and told, ‘There is no money for you.’”
The Liberal government’s cooperative gains mandate says wage increases in the public sector are permissible this year only if the parties identify savings elsewhere. This is different from the 2010 net-zero mandate, which also required savings to offset wage but only if found in the collective agreement.
“Our school district at home gets ‘X’ number of dollars from Victoria,” MacLeod explained. “If or when we are successful at getting a raise, it has to come out of what they’re already sending.”
In an email reply, SD20 superintendent of schools Greg Luterbach refused to comment because, he said, both sides agreed not to bargain through the media.
Significant monetary and job issues are negotiated at the provincial level while other issues are worked out between union locals and local school boards.
SD20 board chair Darrel Ganzert feels for CUPE and understands where they’re coming from but said the board was limited at the bargaining table because most requests had a monetary impact.
“For a group of trustees, who cannot raise taxes and simply rely on what money we get from the government, all we are faced with doing is laying more people off,” he said. “Our system is stretched so thin now and it’s more than embarrassing when you take a look at the state of our schools. They’re not as clean as they used to be, most all of them need paint and many of them need new roofs.”
Local school boards are already dealing with downloaded costs, he said, but he fears that the province will negotiate a settlement, pay the first year and then expect the school districts to pay the subsequent years.
In the meantime, he worries the district will again be dragged through a bargaining process but noted that support workers offer an essential service so there will be limitations on what their job action can look like.
“We just had a year-long teachers’ strike that was absolutely ugly in terms of teacher morale and moving forward educationally as a district,” he said. “There was so much put on hold and so many bad feelings were generated and now there is a potential for more of the same.”