CUPE vote threatens school year

‘Unlikely’ teachers would cross picket line in fall.

Schools may be disrupted or even closed by labour strife as early as this September after CUPE education workers overwhelmingly gave their negotiating committee a strike mandate.

“Unless the government decides to do something during the summer, it’s likely we’ll be out in September,” said Leslie Franklin, president of Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows Local 703, and a member of the provincial bargaining committee.

She said schools would close, because members of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation would not likely cross another union’s picket line.

“If the teachers are out, we don’t cross, and if we’re out, teachers don’t cross.”

Franklin said the strike mandate was 97 per cent in the Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows local.

“People are ticked,” she observed.

These employees include education assistants, custodians, clerical staff and trades people, and they have not received a raise since 2009. There are 27,000 members of the union.

“And we’re seen other groups get increases. Teachers got an increase, trustees give themselves increases and senior staff give themselves increases,” she said. “If there wasn’t support staff, there wouldn’t be a school district, but there seems to be a real lack of respect or value for what we do.

“We clean the place, answer the phones, maintain it, maintain the grounds, assist teachers, we have childcare workers, do noon-hour supervision … “

She said the last meeting for provincial bargaining was in February.

Bill Pegler, the CUPE B.C. K-12 coordinator, said there have been 14 bargaining dates, and now the sides have reached an impasse.

“Our priority is a settlement,” he said, and urged government to “sit down over the course of the summer, and hammer something out.”

He did not release the provincial strike vote result, but said in various districts it ranged between 85 per cent and 100 per cent, giving negotiators a firm mandate to take action.

Pegler said the timing of any job action, and whether it would start with an immediate province-wide strike, has yet to be decided by the union leadership.

If the province does give CUPE a raise, there is no money in the 2013-2014 Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board budget to fund it. The board had to wrestle with a funding shortfall it calculated at $5.6 million.

Last month, the board wrote to newly appointed Education Minister Peter Fassbender, advising him that the budget does not include any wage increases.

“While we agree reasonable wage settlements would be fair and appropriate, we simply cannot absorb the additional costs of wage settlements within our already reduced funding envelope,” said the letter, signed by board chairperson Mike Murray.

At its regular twice-monthly meetings, the board has frequently reviewed copies of similar letters from other school districts around the province, outlining their complaints of lack of funding from the province.

“The cost-cutting measures implemented to date by school districts are substantial. Adding further unfunded costs is not possible without significant negative consequences to the education we provide to our students,” said the board’s letter.

Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton, speaking Wednesday morning from the Legislature, said of the CUPE strike vote, “We recognize that’s a normal part of the bargaining process.”

He said the government has been able to get about three-quarters of public sector employees, represented by about half of the contracts to be negotiated, into an agreement or tentative agreement. These have been made under the government’s cooperative gains mandate, which requires employers to find pay increases in their existing budgets.

“It’s a challenge, we recognize,” he said. “Our economic situation is fairly fragile, and we need to balance the budget.”