Union, school district at impasse in Saanich strike; no classes Wednesday

Classes in the Saanich School District will be cancelled again Wednesday due to a strike by support workers, now in its third week.

The strike over support-worker wages began Oct. 28 and is affecting nearly 8,000 students. Fourteen schools across Saanich, Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney have been closed.

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On Monday, there was even disagreement over which side was willing to talk.

“We are profoundly disappointed in our employer,” said Dean Coates, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441. “We have been asking them since Thursday to give us their availability and they have not bothered to reply to the email.”

Coates said there was an email exchange between Wednesday night and Thursday morning asking the district to get back to the table.

“We haven’t heard one word from them since Thursday. Our employer has squandered away Thursday, Friday and this entire long weekend to bargain and negotiate to try and come up with a settlement that would avoid the strike continuing into its third week,” said Coates.

But Saanich superintendent Dave Eberwein said that’s “blatantly not true.”

“That’s unfortunate he feels that. We have clearly expressed to Mr. Coates that we are ready and willing to get back to the bargaining table. But we have to bargain within the mandate. What we’ve been saying for the past number of months, we have the money that’s available to us on the table and when he is able to negotiate within that mandate we are available at any time and any day to get together. That was our last exchange with Mr. Coates,” said Eberwein.

The opportunity is there to conclude this unfortunate situation, said the superintendent.

“I certainly hear everyone’s frustration. I also am frustrated with the situation. … We have put every dollar onto the table at this point in time,” said Eberwein. “It is upsetting that we have staff members walking the picket line who are holding out for more money to be provided by the provincial government to this problem.”

On Wednesday, union members rejected the latest contract offer by the district, saying it did not adequately meet the needs of students and “our members to be able to provide for our families.”

On Thursday, Coates called upon the province to provide additional funding to the district to bring support workers’ wages in line with those in neighbouring districts.

But the province said Friday it won’t be providing more funding.

In an email, the Ministry of Finance said CUPE 441 can reach a deal within what the ministry called the most generous bargaining mandate in more than a decade.

“Our government believes that solutions are best found at the bargaining table,” the ministry wrote. “Nurses, paramedics, care aids and social workers have all reached deals within the mandate, and CUPE 441 can, too.”

The district has said it’s offering the maximum amount of money it is able to within a provincial framework that regulates public-sector wage increases, limiting them to two per cent annually over three years. The district has offered boosts of 7.1 to 12.8 per cent over three years, with the higher increases targeted to staff with the lowest wages relative to other districts.

Coates has said the offer doesn’t do enough to address the wage disparity with neighbouring districts, which makes it difficult to attract and retain staff in support roles.

He said schools are often short-handed and education assistants are in “constant triage mode.”

The union represents about 500 support workers, including education assistants, custodial staff, bus drivers, administrative staff, maintenance staff and counsellors.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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