By Loreth Beswetherick
Labour unrest — it’s coming to a school near you.
While students in the Howe Sound school district will be heading back to school after Spring Break, as of Wednesday, March 23, a school support worker strike in more than 40 other districts in the province looked all but inevitable.
More than 20,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees — including bus drivers, custodians, noon hour supervisors, clerical support staff, crossing guards, special needs and youth and cultural workers, maintenance workers, library assistants, science and computer technicians and food service workers — were set to walk off the job leaving 350,000 kids without classes.
CUPE employees in the Howe Sound area, however, will not be joining them. But as Local 799 president Bev Fenton said, that does not mean there will not be a strike in District 48 later in the year.
Talks between Local 799 and the Howe Sound School Board for a new collective agreement have not yet reached an impasse and that means CUPE members in this district are not in a legal position to take a strike vote, yet.
Locals in other districts have done all they can at their regional tables. The outstanding, key and common policy issues, including job security, benefits and length of contract are now being negotiated at a provincial level between the CUPE Sectoral Bargaining Committee — which represents 47 locals including Howe Sound — and the B.C. Public School Employers Association. Issues on the provincial, or accord table, remain unresolved and, district by district, members took strike votes.
As chief negotiator for the Howe Sound local Gary Johnson said, he will be insisting whatever decisions are reached at that accord table will be applied in this district. He had hoped when CUPE and the Howe Sound School Board met again last month that local issues would be resolved and an agreement reached within a three-week period.
Clearly, that is not the case, said Fenton. She said Local 779 met with School District 48 one day in May last year and one day in June. "Then we met again Feb. 23. We were supposed to meet Feb. 24 but the school board cancelled," said Fenton. "They said they had too much information to go through and they couldn’t possibly do it for the next day. We have asked for more dates and they won’t give us any more dates until after the 27th."
That means there is no way Local 799 will be in a position to strike along with the other locals come the Monday, March 27 deadline. "We would have been prepared to take a strike vote but I personally feel this is a stall tactic on the board’s part."
Fenton said local issues on the table are "very minor" and there is no reason an agreement couldn’t have been reached expeditiously at the regional level while the bigger issues are hammered out at the provincial table.
Nancy Edwards, secretary-treasurer for the Howe Sound District said the two sides are trying to find a mutually agreeable date to meet again. "We had proposed a date for next week but we haven’t heard back," said Edwards. "We are still in negotiations but we are not in the same position as a number of other school districts in the province." She said a strike has been avoided in this district, for now.
CUPE Local 799 has been without a contract for over a year. Their three-year contract with the district expired Dec. 31, 1998.
While issues on the Howe Sound table may be "minor" one of them is at least controversial. CUPE members are concerned parent volunteers could threaten jobs.
"It’s always an ongoing issue," said Fenton. "We are not saying parents can’t come into the school but the jobs that are ours, no, they can’t do them."
Edwards said the number of parent volunteers in this district varies from school to school. "There tends to be more parent involvement at the elementary level but at the secondary level parents do help with things like driving for extra curricular trips. They are still involved," said Edwards. "We obviously welcome parents to come in and participate with their children."
At Myrtle Philip, for example, parents help teachers out in classrooms, something CUPE feels can be done by a paid teacher’s aide. At Whistler Secondary parents volunteer to patrol hallways during lunch hours, among other tasks.
Teachers are also gearing up to start negotiating for a new collective agreement next year and they are closing rank with CUPE members.
The BC Teachers Federation served notice at its recent annual general meeting that the BCTF will be demanding a substantial wage hike in its next collective agreement. Teachers were urged to support CUPE members in their "similar" struggle. As BCTF president David Chudnovsky said at the AGM opening session: "Their struggle is our struggle and the campaign CUPE is waging is for a fair and reasonable settlement, the same one we will be mounting when we bargain next year."