Parents in support of striking support workers in School District 63 accused school board officials of leveraging an upcoming deadline against workers, a charge rejected by the district’s superintendent.
“That is an unfounded rumour,” said Dave Eberwein. “There is no truth behind that,” he said. “We are not waiting for anything. We are anxious to get our schools open, just as much as parents are and many of our workers are. We would like our schools open as soon as possible.”
Carolyn Moeller and Annilee Armstrong of Families Supporting CUPE 411 leveled that charge Wednesday while outside the district office as parents, their children, and others rallied in support of striking CUPE members.
Striking workers risk losing various benefits for the next three years available under the umbrella agreement guiding support staff bargaining across British Columbia, unless they reach an agreement with the local school board by Nov. 30. The Provincial Framework Agreement (PFA) calls for annual wage increases of two per cent for the next three years, but leaves room for local provisions. The proposed annual increase would remain in place, Eberwein confirmed.
Local union officials, however, have deemed this framework insufficient in calling for measures that eliminate wage differences between support staff across district boundaries. To this end, they have asked the provincial government to increase the pot of money available, a request that the province has so far rejected.
While school board officials have offered some additional benefits under the terms of the PFA, union leaders consider them insufficient to address the broader issue of pay parity.
Moeller said Wednesday’s show of support sought to pressure the school board officials back to the negotiating table. “CUPE 441 has been basically trying to get them back to the table since Wednesday [last week],” she said. “They refused to work all weekend on this. We feel like they are drawing out the strike. We want them to wake up and get back to the table.”
But Moeller is not so sure they will return to the bargaining table, a point underscored by Armstrong, who predicted that school board officials will use the pending deadline to present support workers with a take-or-it-leave choice. If so, Moeller predicts that this current situation could “go on forever.”
Eberwein said it’s important to note that the Nov. 30 deadline is part of a provincial agreement, which CUPE has signed and is and is well aware of. “This is not something we have control over,” he said. “This is a provincial agreement that was signed by [various parties] almost a year ago.”
Eberwein also reiterated earlier comments from Jason Reid, the district’s secretary treasurer. “As we have communicated to you already, when you are ready to bargain within the funding that is available for local bargaining, we are ready and available to negotiate,” said Reid in a letter dated Nov. 12 to union leadership.
Eberwein said the offer currently on the table is the best available offer, and there is no point of bargaining outside the provincial mandate. Pay parity is a provincial issue and union members actually risk losing funding designed to address the issue if the deadline at the end of the month passes, he said.
If school board officials have drawn a firm line, parents, striking workers, and their supporters from other CUPE locals used Wednesday’s rally to demonstrate their commitment, following a similar rally of support on Friday.
Marching on the sidewalk outside the school board office on Keating Cross Road, the crowd estimated at 150 people drew frequent honks of support from passing vehicles, including many large trucks rumbling from and to Central Saanich’s industrial area.
Several speakers called on the provincial government to resolve the dispute. Perhaps the most well-received speech came from Genevieve Barker, an educational assistant at Sidney Elementary School.
Educational assistants, she said, handle many practical, educational, and emotional aspects that happen behind the scenes but make the system work.
“We may be just one tiny local,” she said. “But our local hearts are big. And our district has capitalized on this very fact for decades. That we care enough and we want to give back to our communities, and so we stay. But enough is enough!”
The Peninsula News Review has asked School District No. 63 for comment and will update this story accordingly.
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