Support staff from 18 sites across School District 63 were on picket lines at 7 a.m. this morning after bargaining units for the union and the school district failed to reach a compromise over the weekend in a dispute over wages.
Support staff and teachers in the district were picketing this morning in front of SIDES distance education centre on Wilkinson Road and Royal Oak Middle School while passing vehicles honked in support.
“We regret we had to picket at schools,” said Dean Coates, CUPE Local 441 president, this morning.
The district includes schools in North Saanich, Central Saanich and Saanich. All 14 schools, one board office, two distance education centres and one individual learning centre have picket lines today, Coates said.
The Saanich Teachers’ Association has instructed teachers not to cross picket lines. As a result, nearly 8,000 students are expected to be out of school this morning as parents scramble to find childcare.
Coates said the union is willing, ready and able to bargain around the clock for “a meaningful solution to our 40-year problem with wage parity.”
After days without contact, the district contacted the union via text message Saturday night to find out if members had accepted a proposal from the district during a special meeting held earlier Saturday, said Coates.
Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein confirmed teachers are honouring the picket lines “so schools are unfortunately closed for instruction today and I know this is extremely inconvenient for parents and students.”
Eberwein said the situation is upsetting for everyone including the support workers, teachers, staff, and administrators.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today,” said Eberwein.
Support staff in the district’s 14 schools are seeking wage parity with peers in neighbouring districts, where similar work nets a higher paycheque. The union gave this example: an education assistant is paid $21.61 per hour under the last contract in the Saanich district, while a similar worker in the Sooke district makes $25.28, and one in the Greater Victoria district is paid $25.20 an hour.
Coates said support staff in his district have lower wages than those in other districts because the union voted many years ago to forgo a wage increase in favour of improving benefits.
A provincial mandate sets the maximum amount of money available for wage bargaining for all public sector work.
“It’s a very complex situation with regards to the main proposal, the main sticking point right now which is the wage disparity between some of our support workers, and some of their colleagues,” said Eberwein.
Eberwein said the district has found creative ways to maximize the amount of money they’re able to offer. The proposal on the table offers support staff the maximum the district is allowed to within the provincial mandate, he said.
Eberwein said the district has been told repeatedly by the province that the mandate will not be opened.
“The risk for government in opening up the mandate for one union is that they have to open it for everybody,” Eberwein said. “Our goal is to come to a resolution as quickly as possible,” he said.
Coates said the proposal that members discussed Saturday, which the district put forth in September, offers an hourly pay increase of about 30 or 40 cents that is largely funded by the members’ own money by converting financial benefits to salary.
Coates said the lower wages make it hard to attract and retain staff in support roles. As a result, schools are often short-handed and education assistants are in “constant triage mode.”
Coates said on Monday that the union understands this strike is an inconvenience for families and students but that the support workers “need to take care of our families so we can take care of the families we service.”
“A lot of this is about our working conditions,” Coates said. “Ultimately, our working conditions are one and the same with the children’s learning conditions.”
Meanwhile, parents across the district are scrambling to find last-minute childcare. James Taylor, vice-president of the Confederation of Parents’ Advisory Councils of Saanich, said the hardest part for parents is not knowing how long kids will be out of school.