Negotiations with unions representing more than 25,000 school support staff are back on next week, with a strike mandate already in place for B.C.’s 60 school districts as the new school year gets underway.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said Wednesday he is hopeful that a settlement with clerical staff, custodians, bus drivers and other support staff can be achieved without picket lines disrupting classes. Talks broke off in August and are set to resume for three days starting Sept. 4.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing most of the workers, says they haven’t had a raise in four years. The latest contract expired in June 2012 after a two-year wage freeze was imposed across the B.C. public service.
Fassbender wouldn’t comment directly on talks, except to say that school districts are working to set up “savings accounts” in their operations to fund wage increases within existing district budgets. The government’s “cooperative gains” mandate requires all raises to be funded by internal savings such as shared administrative functions.
CUPE is seeking raises of two per cent per year.
“Our members will take full-scale job action if the government doesn’t show a commitment to bargaining,” CUPE representative Colin Pawson said in a statement on the weekend, as the union prepared to start an advertising campaign to attract public support.
Fassbender said funding for public education is at record levels despite falling enrolment. While some urban districts are growing, the education ministry forecasts that there will be 526,000 full-time students this year, down 9,000 from the last school year. The total budget remains the same, $4.7 billion, of which about 80 per cent pays wages of teachers, support staff and administrators.
Soon after being appointed minister by Premier Christy Clark, Fassbender appointed a provincial negotiator to take over province-wide issues from the bargaining agent for school districts.
Negotiator Peter Cameron told union leaders in mid-August he would not return to talks until boards have savings plans in place. Fassbender said Wednesday that “a large majority are well underway, and many are in place” so talks can resume.