Empty school playground equipment at Twin Rivers Elementary in Castlegar on Friday

Empty school playground equipment at Twin Rivers Elementary in Castlegar on Friday

School strike a possibility in September

More than 220 school support staff workers in the East and West Kootenays could be on the picket lines in September.

Cherryl MacLeod, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1285 and an education assistant, has warned that if a deal with the government over wage increases isn’t reached soon, there could be a province-wide strike as early as mid-September.

MacLeod represents more than 220 school support staff workers in the East and West Kootenays, including bus drivers, trades people, education assistants, clerical, maintenance and custodial staff.

“Basically, all of the people that keep schools clean, safe and inclusive,” said MacLeod by phone on Tuesday, Aug. 20. “We’ve been negotiating with the government for our collective agreement since it expired over a year ago. We’ve been trying to negotiate but talks broke off again at the beginning of August.”

The local president said the union has been in a legal strike position since June and has not had a wage adjustment in four years. There are no new negotiation dates set at this point. MacLeod said the government made it clear they weren’t prepared to discuss wages, but she and the other six union presidents are prepared to go back to the table on short notice.

“They can phone today and say the government wants to talk to us and I’ll head back to Vancouver to try and bargain,” she said. “If that doesn’t happen by the middle of September, we will be on strike.”

Macleod said the union is negotiating for increases that have been offered to CUPE members in post-secondary education;  a two per cent funded increase for the next two years. Failing that, a 72-hour strike notice could be given at any time. When the strike vote was held in the East and West Kootenays, MacLeod said the results were 89 per cent in favour.

Scott Sutherland, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education was reached by phone on Wednesday, Aug. 21 and said the provinces lead negotiator, Peter Cameron, has contacted the bargaining committee representing the support worker unions.

“They’ve been discussing meeting dates to get back to bargaining and both sides are optimistic they’ll sit down in the near future,” said Sutherland. “Cameron is involved as the government’s lead on this but he’s there to assist the employers and when you get down to it, it’s not the government who is the employer in this, it’s the school districts. And when we say school districts, it’s actually the trustees — the boards of education are the employers in this instance.”

In an interview with the Trail Daily Times in May, SD20 board chair Darrel Ganzert said he understands where CUPE is 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,” said Ganzert. “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.”

The cooperative gains mandate the government is negotiating under essentially asks that funds for increases for wages need to be found from within existing budgets or through union concessions on things such as benefits.

MacLeod said the bargaining process was affected when Cameron became involved.

“It set us back,” she said. “We had somebody new as a lead and we didn’t have the people from BCPSEA that we were used to dealing with.” She said they thought they change might work out better with Cameron having closer to links to government but that it didn’t turn out that way.

“He called us back to the table and didn’t have any way to give us a wage adjustment,” she said. “I don’t want to put my members out on strike but we do need to make government aware that we’re done.”

MacLeod said she didn’t feel the union was making unreasonable demands, adding that the average K-12 worker has an annual income of about $24,000 per year.

CUPE represents more than 27,000 B.C. education workers in the K-12 system.

* With files from Val Rossi, Trail Daily Times.