Talks stalled as school support workers cast strike vote

NANAIMO – Support workers in school district a step closer to job action.

Support workers in Nanaimo school district are one step closer to job action.

The district’s support workers recently voted 89 per cent in favour of strike action. Support worker contracts expired last June and union officials say contract talks have stalled.

Rob Zver, president of CUPE Local 606, said bargaining at the provincial table is at a standstill and at the local table union officials were told improvements to contracts can only be discussed under the provincial government’s co-operative gains mandate, which requires employers to pay for any wage increases within the existing budget.

But in December, when Education Minister Don McRae sent districts letters asking that boards find savings in their budgets equal to 1.5 per cent of support staff compensation both this year and next year to pay for wage increases, school board chairman Jamie Brennan replied with a letter stating the district would not comply with the request and that it would be impossible to do so without affecting services for students.

Zver said the main issues are job security and wages – workers haven’t had a wage increase since 2009 and the union is concerned that even if workers give up something to get a wage increase, this could translate into more job losses in the future because the province isn’t funding the system adequately.

“We’ve done our years of zeros,” he said. “You have to give up something, but it doesn’t mean funding is available in the future. We want some job security built in, too.”

Zver said the union would have to serve 72-hour strike notice through the B.C. Labour Relations Board before any job action takes place and it doesn’t look like any action is likely before the end of the school year.

“We still have another date to go into negotiations this month … and we’ll see how it goes from there,” he said.

School support workers across the province are taking strike votes.

Bill Pegler, CUPE B.C.’s K-12 coordinator, said 34 locals have successfully completed strike votes and he expects all 57 to have completed voting by the end of June.

He said the province is saying there is no money for wage increases, which is unacceptable for a group of workers that had no increase since 2009.

“We are only looking for what the other public sector unions have been able to negotiate,” said Pegler.

Any job action would likely be co-ordinated provincewide, he added.

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, said trustees would have to make cuts to programs and services to pay for any wage increases out of the existing budget.

“We don’t have any money and that’s what CUPE wants,” he said. “I haven’t heard there’s any change in the position of government with regard to funding pay increases.”