Three-year deal ends three-week Saanich School District strike

Eighty-four per cent of striking Saanich School District support workers voted Sunday to ratify a three-year agreement that the union president says will bring wages in line with compensation in surrounding districts.

Students returned to classes Monday after the strike closed schools for three weeks.

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“It’s not perfect, but we believe it will be wage parity with our neighbouring districts within the life of the collective agreement, or damn close to it,” said Dean Coates, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441, which represents about 500 support workers in the Saanich School District.

Support employees — including custodians, bus drivers, maintenance workers and education assistants — walked off the job Oct. 28 after failing to come to an agreement with the district over wage increases to close the gap with neighbouring districts.

The difference in wages posed problems for recruiting and retaining staff, leading to chronically short-staffed classrooms, Coates has said.

The ratified deal, which offers increases of 7.1 to 12.8 per cent over three years, includes a recommendation that the Saanich district be one of the first in the province to access funds set aside in the current provincial bargaining mandate to ensure those in similar job categories earn similar wages.

“That’s the huge difference,” Coates said of the recommendation. “It was a very elegant solution to a complex problem.”

The recommendation came from Renzo Del Negro, chief executive officer of the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association.

The final decision to include Saanich district as one of the first in the province to access the provincial funds rests with a joint committee of unions and employers from across the province. The committee is undertaking a study to create benchmark wages for roles, with the provincial funding used to help top up wages so they’re closer to the benchmark.

Funds won’t be available until the study is completed in about a year, but the money would be retroactively applied to Saanich support workers’ wages as of Jan. 2, 2020.

District superintendent Dave Eberwein expressed relief that the union voted to accept the deal, putting students back in classrooms on Monday. “We’re getting back to what we all love to do,” he said.

The labour dispute affected nearly 8,000 students in schools across Saanich, Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney.

“The kids were all so happy this morning to be back and see their teachers and their friends and their support staff,” said Kari McCune, whose seven-year-old son attends Sidney Elementary.

McCune, who helped organize family rallies in support of CUPE 441, is looking forward to seeing the terms of the deal, saying “there remains a lot of uncertainty. I want to see longevity in whatever deal is agreed upon.”

Eberwein said schools are working to maximize instructional time and the district is discussing adjusting the end of the semester in January, and the end of school year in June. Any changes will be communicated to parents this week.

No changes to winter break or spring break are expected.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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