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Les Leyne: More school labour strife in the offing

Remember former education minister Don McRae’s advice last year to school districts? He said they should save up some money so they could afford to give pay raises to staff. Such a quaint notion.

Remember former education minister Don McRae’s advice last year to school districts?

He said they should save up some money so they could afford to give pay raises to staff.

Such a quaint notion.

It would be inaccurate to say boards of education laughed off the advice. They were too furious to do that.

They fired back with emphatic denials that there is any possible way to save money on their closely shaved budgets.

The response was strong enough that the government backed off a touch. The minister initially sounded quite unilateral: “To be clear, generated savings obtained by boards must not negatively impact the delivery of education programming for students.”

Then the ministry said it was just a request. Then later, he more or less dropped the idea completely, in the face of bitter resentment from trustees.

McRae indicated at the time that they would look elsewhere to scrape up enough money for a raise. In the meantime, talks continued with CUPE support staff on the last contract in B.C. that needs to be signed under the co-operative-gains mandate. And consideration of a 10-year deal with teachers occupied a lot of attention as well.

The underlying dynamic last winter revolved around the fact that the election was six months away. Every indication was that the B.C. Liberals were going down. It looked like the New Democrats — who profess to love spending money on education and didn’t care about balancing the budget — were going to take over.

Trustees didn’t have any room to save money and wouldn’t have bothered even if they did. The safe bet was that the government was going to change and more money would be made available soon after.

So the concept of “district savings plans” succumbed shortly after it was invented.

Everybody now knows that bet didn’t pay off. The B.C. Liberals survived the election with ease. There’s a new education minister — Peter Fassbender — but the same hard line is being taken on the CUPE contract.

He wrote to school boards last month with a good news-bad news proposition. B.C. will cover the cost of any wage hikes for teachers. But any hikes that come out of the CUPE talks will have to come from school-district budgets, or from within the labour contract itself.

It worked in every other round, using the co-operative gains mandate, where raises had to be funded from cuts elsewhere in the contract. So the government insists it will work on the one outstanding round.

Fassbender also advised districts to create “savings plans” in anticipation. But that’s hard to do when the savings have yet to be negotiated in the contract talks.

The whole exercise is close to falling off the cliff this week. It’s getting late in the game to find enough savings to produce an appreciable wage increase for more than 25,000 CUPE staff.

That’s partly why the air of pessimism at the bargaining table intensified this week. Talks are expected to break off in the near future.

The CUPE school workers have gone four years without a raise and are still a long way from getting one without a showdown.

They are looking for a four per cent raise and half of it would be retroactive to last July, which adds up to a sizable one-time hit on district budgets.

One of the balls being juggled in the air involves sick days. The idea is to cap the number of sick days an employee could take, which would produce a bit more money to be used for a wage hike. CUPE rejected it outright last week and it doesn’t look as if things have changed this week.

The two sides met Monday and Tuesday and are scheduled for another session today. Miraculous breakthroughs happen every once in a while, but there’s no expectation on either side of one developing here.

CUPE has a strike mandate from most locals so the next move would be 72-hour notice, followed by what the union has already said would be a full-scale provincewide strike, with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation respecting any and all picket lines.

After all the hopes and dreams about a 10-year deal in education and long-lasting labour peace, B.C. could soon be right where it usually is, in the middle of another school-shutdown drama.