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Government, BCPSEA react to school support workers strike vote

The BC Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA) says funding issues are indeed the reason bargaining for school support workers has come to a halt. In light of a recent strike vote by CUPE Locals representing the workers, they say they need to work with both the union and government for a solution.

"I think that the solution, if we're able to find one, is going to come from the three parties treating this as a problem that we need to tackle and find some potential solutions to," Alan Chell, chair of BCPSEA, told The Tyee.

CUPE called off provincial and local contract negotiations in April, saying government wasn't giving the employer the leeway to raise salaries or improve benefits under the Cooperative Gains mandate. Under the mandate, no new funding is provided for salary increases. Instead employers and unions must work together to find savings within employee contracts to provide the increase.

In a conversation with The Tyee Solutions Society earlier this week, CUPE BC K-12 Coordinator Bill Pegler said the average full-time salary for school support staff in the province is $24,000 per year. The union hasn't had a raise since 2009, and has been without a contract for over a year.

Chell says since most of the 57 CUPE locals, representing 27,000 maintenance and clerical staff, custodians, and education assistants in 53 of the province’s 60 school districts, have voted for fall strike action, it's obvious union members support their union's bargaining withdrawal.

"I understand completely why they have taken that action, and it's something I would say that we all share is a significant concern in that we all believe we need to find some sort of solution to this," he said, adding BCPSEA is willing to return to the bargaining table over the summer is CUPE BC agrees.

But the ministry of education is not considering alternative bargaining mandates for support workers. In a statement emailed to The Tyee Solutions Society, Education Minister Peter Fassbender pointed out close to three-quarters of the province's public sector unions have reached tentative or ratified agreements under the 2012 Cooperative Gains mandate.

"The Ministry encourages school districts to identify savings which could be used to fund modest wage increases for support staff as other sectors have done to be able to settle agreements," he said.

"We continue to remain optimistic that the parties will be able to reach a negotiated agreement within the existing mandate."

The ministry is currently trying to achieve a 10-year negotiated contract with the BC Teachers' Federation. Fassbender says teachers' aren’t the only ones who can sign long-term contracts.

"We are also open to exploring a long term deal. Anything that can lead to greater labour stability in our schools is worthy of consideration," he said.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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