The prospect of a labour dispute disrupting the school year came a step closer to reality Tuesday, after a breakdown in talks between the provincial government and the union representing school support staff.
“Government wasn’t ready for us,” said Leslie Franklin, who represents Ridge Meadows school district workers (CUPE Local 703) and who is also on the bargaining committee.
“We were there three days, but they weren’t prepared to bargain.”
CUPE represents teacher’s assistants, custodial staff, clerical workers and other vocations in the school system.
They have been without a raise for four years and their contract expired more than a year ago.
In June, CUPE’s school district locals took a strike vote that received broad support across the province, ranging between 85 and 100 per cent. In the Ridge Meadows local, 97 per cent voted for job action.
A strike would close schools, because members of the BC Teachers’ Federation will not cross a CUPE picket line, said Franklin.
“We want a settlement. We don’t want strike action,” she said.
The government called the union to the table, but no progress was made.
“We were there three days, but they weren’t prepared to bargain,” Franklin said, calling it “disappointing,” “extremely frustrating” and “a waste of three days.”
The union issued a release saying there is a danger the bargaining delays will disrupt classes in the fall.
“Our committee set aside nearly two weeks to bargain, and we came to the table with ideas for cost savings.”
“The only thing missing was a committed bargaining agent on the employer’s side,” said Colin Pawson, the chair of the CUPE BC K-12 presidents’ council, in a press release.
“If the government doesn’t show a commitment to bargaining, our members will take full-scale job action,” said Pawson. “They’re frustrated that we’ve had three false starts to negotiating, and the clock is ticking.”
The union has proposed more dates in the last week of August or first week of September to resume talks, but hasn’t heard from the province.
If the province does give CUPE a raise, there is presently no money in the Ridge Meadows school board budget to fund it. The board had to wrestle with a funding shortfall it calculated at $5.6 million. Under the province’s Cooperative Gains Mandate, boards would have to find funds in their budget to pay for the increase, as the government says it will give no new money.