Saanich teachers rally for striking support workers; no classes on Friday

Teachers held a rally that attracted about 175 people at the constituency office of Saanich South MLA Lana Popham on Thursday to bolster striking support workers in the Saanich School District.

The job action by members of CUPE 441, which continues today, is now in its third week, and schools remain closed for the district’s almost 8,000 students.

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Members of the Saanich Teachers’ Association had already been honouring picket lines set up by the support workers at district schools, going without pay.

The 500 support workers, including education assistants, custodians and counsellors, are seeking wage parity with their counterparts in neighbouring school districts. They say lack of parity is creating problems filling positions in the district.

Teachers’ Association president Don Peterson said his members are prepared to back CUPE 441 for as long as necessary. He said Popham should be speaking out in support of the workers, who have been on strike since Oct. 28.

“She’s an MLA for the riding,” Peterson said. “Currently, there’s no education going on in a significant portion of her riding.”

Not being paid is a challenge for teachers, Peterson said, but members of other locals have made donations to help. He did not specify how much has been provided.

Popham said in a statement that she has spoken to many constituents about the current job action and knows the situation is stressful for parents, students, teachers and support workers.

“I know significant work has been done during negotiations to date on this agreement,” Popham said. “I continue to encourage all sides to return to the bargaining table because that’s where a solution will be found.”

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said all available money under the provincial mandate for bargaining has been used in an effort to reach a settlement with CUPE 441.

“The challenge to us is if the CUPE bargaining executive is asking for money outside of the mandate, we don’t have the authority to bargain that,” he said. “We need to be on the same page. We’re absolutely willing to come back to the table, but we have to be talking about the same facts in front of us.”

Eberwein noted that a mediator was engaged in September for bargaining sessions, without success, but the school board is open to having a mediator step in again.

CUPE 441 president Dean Coates said he is “cautiously optimistic” that ongoing communication between the two sides is creating a pathway for a return to bargaining. “We’re absolutely willing — we have been willing to go to the table from the beginning.”

The union and the school board haven’t been in formal negotiations since last week.

The school board has made an offer, rejected by the union, that includes wage increases of 7.1 to 12.8 per cent. Higher raises would go to workers making the lowest wages in comparison to those in other school districts.

Eberwein said that if a collective agreement is not reached before Nov. 30, some provisions within the provincial framework agreement for bargaining will no longer apply, including some funds.

“Part of that is the Service Improvement Allocation Funds, [in] which we have just over $96,000, for example,” he said.

“That falls off the table. So that’s already part of our wage package to the union. We apply 100 per cent of that to educational assistants.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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