The negotiation between School District #63 and CUPE 441 is complex and has evolved into a seemingly intractable situation. From as best as I can tell it started 40 or 50 years ago.
Back then support staff in the District decided to forego wage increases in order to receive a more comprehensive benefits package. It’s my understanding that following a mediators decision the benefits packages in the other District’s across the province were aligned. Unfortunately for the workers in School District #63, their wages did not receive the same treatment.
As time passed the disparity grew as the provincial negotiating framework put caps on the wage increases School District’s were allowed to offer their workers. Year over year the gap between workers in Saanich and Victoria and Sooke widens. The result is putting stress on the ability of Saanich to recruit and retain workers.
The problem is that the District (employer) is offering the most the provincial government allows them to offer. They have even got creative and sought relief from the Ministry to stretch a few programs past the definition of their mandate to free up a little more money to negotiate. It still falls well short because the workers (represented by CUPE 441) are unwilling to accept another round of collective bargaining without proper redress of the widening wage gap. Representatives from both sides have been pretty clear publicly that this problem is unlikely to be addressed at the bargaining table. It appears the only recourse is for the provincial government, and the Minister of Education, to step in.
This labour dispute is incredibly disruptive to families in Saanich North and the Islands. Past Ministers have not solved this issue and so the gap continues to grow. Pointing to the failure of the decisions of a past government to solve the problem is a deflection and misdirection. The sides appear to be entrenched, and there is only one Minister who can provide the redress that is needed to solve this impasse.
LABOUR DISPUTE IN
SAANICH SCHOOL DISTRICT
A. Olsen: The labour dispute between school district No. 63 and CUPE 441 is hurting the 500 school support workers, clerical, transportation, grounds, maintenance and custodial staff that provide critical services to the quality of public education in my riding. It also disrupts teachers, school administrators and the 8,000 students that are sitting at home this week.
In addition to the disruption to public education, thousands of families in my riding are scrambling to find childcare and manage their way through this difficult situation. I’m hearing all about the challenges, Mr. Speaker. The families in my riding need certainty. Accountability flows to this House, where the government must deliver on their commitment to families in British Columbia to provide a quality public education system.
To the Minister of Education, parents in my riding want to know: what is the pathway for resolving this labour dispute?
Hon. R. Fleming: I thank the member for the question. I know, in terms of his constituents, this is a very stressful situation for parents and for kids in Saanich school district. I want to let them know that the province of British Columbia is obviously monitoring the situation very closely. We have remained available to provide whatever assistance we can to get the two parties back at the negotiating table and find a resolution forward.
I would add that we have achieved success 53 other times with support staff unions right across British Columbia, where we’ve negotiated successful agreements with support staff unions and workers. We expect that within the sustainable services mandate, we can achieve exactly that in Saanich. We want to do it immediately. We’d like a resolution to the situation as soon as possible. The government remains available to help the two parties, both the Saanich school district as the employer and the union represented by CUPE, to do just that.
Mr. Speaker: Saanich North and the Islands on a supplemental.
A. Olsen: I thank the minister for his response.
Mediation has not been successful to date. The parties have been at the mediation table. I’ve met with both sides, and I’ve heard that everyone agrees that, actually, there’s a problem that not necessarily can be solved locally. There are substantial and historic challenges in Saanich that have gone unaddressed for decades.
From what I’ve learned, the provincial negotiating framework lacks the flexibility the school board requires to address the situation in our district. It appears to back workers into a corner with conditions that punish them for advancing their interests. It forces them to accept the status quo, as they have done for successive contracts. It also handcuffs the employer, whose representative was on the CBC this morning highlighting how the situation impairs recruitment and retention.
It appears that it’s on the minister to solve the situation. In the Times Colonist this morning, the minister rightly states: “The previous government did not address this inequity. However, the negotiating framework appears unchanged. The situation is on this government. Only the current minister has the power to do what previous administrations have failed to do.”
To the Minister of Education, the situation is impacting the quality of education in my riding, the quality of life for the workers, and I’m certain that it’s causing uncertainty for families in Saanich. How does the minister intend to redress the unmanageable and growing disparities between workers in Saanich and their counterparts in the same city in neighbouring school districts?
Hon. R. Fleming: Again, to the member, our government is seeking to do what we’ve done successfully with 230,000 public servants right across British Columbia, and that is successfully negotiate agreements under a free collective bargaining framework. We seek to do the exact same in the Saanich school district. We have done so on 53 occasions with the support staff unions around British Columbia.
I want to thank the district thus far, and the union, for trying to work creatively under the sustainable services mandate committee. It’s not as if the parties are hopelessly far apart. They are close, and could be closer, to an agreement.
For example, as the member mentioned, we have inherited a situation where workers in this district have had their wages held down for the better part of a decade. The parties have agreed already to look at an 11.7 percent wage increase in a three-year term for educational assistants. That’s what we’ve been able to offer at this point in time in the Saanich school district.
We have achieved agreements with 53 other support staff unions. The same mandate is available to this group of workers. There is no reason why we can’t be successful. We want to work as hard as we can. We will offer the resources to get the job done, get an agreement that’s good for the workers in Saanich school district and good for kids and parents and families in classrooms in this district.