It’s unclear whether Abbotsford schools will be open next month or if they will be surrounded by picket lines.
Around 800 support staff, organized under the Teamsters Local 31 union, voted Thursday 95 per cent in favour of a strike. A 72-hour notice must be given to the Abbotsford School District prior to any strike action.
The Teamsters represent the district’s support staff, including clerical workers, bus drivers, education assistants, youth care workers, maintenance workers and custodians.
A negotiation mediator will attend a district meeting with the Teamsters on Oct. 31 to try to settle the labour dispute, said Kayla Stuckart, manager of communications for the district.
“The district remains optimistic that with the mediator’s assistance we can engage in productive discussions with the union,” Stuckart said. “It’s important that we retain our focus on the needs of the students in our schools and we are hopeful that their education is not interrupted by a labour dispute.”
Staff claim they are the lowest paid district by $3 to $5 an hour. They’re also upset about receiving six paid sick days annually, while most districts provide their employees with 18.
The employees have been without a contract since June 30, when the previous five-year collective agreement expired.
The initial offer by the school district was rejected by 93 per cent of union members in September.
The demands by support staff are not unreasonable, says Heidi Smit Vinois, a special education representative for the district’s parent advisory council.
“Education assistants need full-time hours. They’re professional people and deserve professional wages. They are responsible for inclusion in our schools working. Without them, it doesn’t work,” she said.
Vinois said wages have not kept up with the cost of living and, because weekly hours for education assistants max out at 35, some children can go without proper help during certain periods of the day.
“If some children are unsupported, they cannot be successful in school. We’re failing those children.”
Melissa Crowhurst has two children who require support from education assistants. She said it will be impossible to send them to school next month without the help of support staff.
“They need to put the support in place to enable all of our kids to get access to education,” Crowhurst said.
There are 1,276 students requiring some form of special education assistance, according to a school district budget report for 2019-2020.
Wage schedules posted to the BC Public School Employers’ Association’s website show a significant pay gap for most Abbotsford positions when compared to neighbouring school districts.
For instance, youth care workers make $24.84 an hour in Abbotsford, but are paid $26.33 in Langley, $27.08 in Maple Ridge, $29.37 in Mission and $29.38 in Surrey.
There are 69 local support staff unions in the province’s 60 education districts. Abbotsford’s school support staff are one of only a few represented under the Teamsters and not the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
The Teamsters are the only union representing support staff that did not participate in the Provincial Framework Agreement created in September 2018. The agreement set up a standard framework which local unions and school districts could opt into, such as a general wage increase of two per cent a year, a three year contract term and a commitment to safety procedures in the workplace.
As of Thursday, collective agreements have been reached with 41 of the 69 support staff unions in the province, according to Deborah Stewart, director of communications for the BCPSEA.
The last time a contract was negotiated in 2014, the Abbotsford School District was the last district in the province to sign a contract with its support workers. Teamsters Local 31 served a 72-hour notice but an agreement was reached within the three days before the strike commenced.
A Teamsters Local 31 representative could not be reached after repeated attempts.