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CUPE BC deal puts labour focus back on teachers

If CUPE BC's 27,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 support workers vote to ratify the collective agreement they hammered out with government this week, partial credit goes to the province's teachers' union.

In a press release on Sept. 13, the support workers union posted a letter from the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) pledging their respect of support worker picket lines should negotiations fail, shutting down schools across the province.

Five days later, CUPE BC announced a tentative agreement with the government, including a 3.5 per cent wage increase over two years and no concessions. The agreement also covers the 6,000 support worker members of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

The Ministry of Education expects school districts to cover the wage increases through cost savings in their budgets.

"I want to thank all 85,000 of our members across the province, and our K-12 members in particular, for their solidarity. It's only because we held together that we were able to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract, despite demands for concessions from the government," said CUPE BC President Mark Hancock in a release issued on Wednesday.

"I would also like to thank the BC Teachers' Federation for their unwavering commitment to public education in our province and for their strong support during these difficult negotiations."

BCTF President Jim Iker says government probably felt pressure to reach a deal because of the possibility of schools closing just weeks into the school year.

"I'm sure it would have had to have given government some pause to think about -- especially this government that talks about labour stability and peace. I don't think it would have looked good for them to force a strike in K-12 in terms of the CUPE negotiations," he said.

Iker says he's pleased support workers could reach a negotiated agreement, and hopes government will change its mind and pledge to fund the wage increases, like Education Minister Peter Fassbender promised for the teachers.

"When a government actually makes a commitment to pay for any negotiated collective agreement (it) is always good news. And it used to be the way pre-2002 whenever there were agreements, government used to fund it. It's only been in the last 11 years where government has not funded collective agreements that were negotiated between the employer and the union," he said.

Focus now turns to the BCTF themselves, whose own contract negotiations are expected to begin in October after the current BC Supreme Court hearing between government and the union over reinstating class size and composition to 2002 levels concludes.

Iker reiterated teachers are open to a longer term deal this time around, provided there is money on the table for a wage increase and changes to class size and composition guidelines. However the union is wary of the 10-year deal the ministry has been pushing for.

He also hopes government will follow their own precedent from the proposed CUPE deal and take concessions off the table.

"Bargaining is about give and take, and bargaining is not about concessions," he said.

CUPE BC K-12 local presidents met yesterday and endorsed the agreement. Now it will go to the 57 local bargaining tables for ratification in a process that could take until December to finish.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues. Follow her on Twitter.

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