Support staff strike may disrupt back-to-school season
West Kootenay public school students may be gearing up for a new year of classes, but the support staff who work within those schools are bracing themselves for a potential strike, according to Castlegar’s Cherryl MacLeod.
MacLeod works as an education assistant as well as serving as president of CUPE Local 1285, representing both the East and West Kootenays in these negotiations.
She said support staff, which includes custodial and clerical staff, education assistants and bus drivers, have been negotiating with the provincial government for an improved collective agreement ever since it expired 14 months ago. CUPE representatives from across the province have travelled to Vancouver many times since then to negotiate a new contract but those negotiations have been unsuccessful. Support staff in 55 out of 57 CUPE locals voted for strike action in June but have still tried to negotiate collectively.
MacLeod said she is hopeful that the government will summon CUPE representatives back to Vancouver at the beginning of September for another round of talks – but if that does not happen, school support staff will walk off the job by mid-September.
MacLeod says that a strike is a last resort.
“Believe me, we don’t want to have to turn children away from attending school,” she said. “In small towns like Castlegar, we know parents personally. We know that a strike would affect families a great deal. People like to think a strike is just about money, but there are other reasons, such as issues surrounding school calendars and cuts in hours, which we have been facing for a long time.”
She conceded, however, that wages are a large part of contract discussions – and a subject the provincial government is unwilling to address.
“All we are asking is to be treated fairly, like other public sector workers are. Our last wage adjustment was in 2009 and the cost of living has gone up a lot since then, but our wages haven’t,” MacLeod said, adding the average salary of an education assistant is $24,000/year. “That’s not much above the poverty line. We have single parents in support staff positions who are finding it tougher to earn a living wage.”
Because contracts are bargained province-wide, not just locally, a strike would mean support staff across British Columbia would walk off the job. MacLeod also says that Andy Davidoff, president of the Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union, has told her that local teachers would respect the picket lines and not cross them, which means schools in the West Kootenay would shut down altogether.
There’s still a possibility strike action will be averted – if not, British Columbia’s students will face a disrupted academic year just as they return to school after summer vacation.