Saskatchewan school caretakers, educational assistants and library workers say they will not accept wage cuts being demanded by the provincial government.
"This is horrible," said Jackie Christianson, who represents 7,000 school support workers through the Canadian Union of Public Employees. "I have members who are using the food bank."
A memo from former deputy education minister Julie MacRae dated April 3 warned board chairs to cut wages or benefits for employees by 3.5 per cent, noting those rates would be frozen for three more years.
Christianson said there's a "big difference" between asking for a wage cut from a cabinet minister compared to an educational assistant with 30 years experience who makes $22,000 a year.
"It's an absolute no. We will not accept this," said Christianson.
School boards must approve and submit detailed budgets to the Ministry of Education by the end of June to spell out spending plans for the upcoming school year.
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Education workers face 10% wage cut: CUPE
Christianson said a 3.5 per cent cut combined with three years of frozen wages would amount to losing 10 per cent of a worker's income.
"The answer is absolutely no," said Christianson, who said a number of CUPE members did not see cost-of-living increases during Saskatchewan's boom years.
She said 60 per cent of her members have open contracts right now, and school boards have asked them to accept lower wages.
"We will not accept less," said Christianson. "Our kids deserve better."
School boards frustrated
Although April's memo from the education ministry said wage reductions could not be achieved through attrition or further reductions in staff levels, officials later said that was not the case.
"We have questions and we're really not getting clear answers, and that's frustrating" said Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association.
He said school boards have yet to receive a written update from the province on how to handle any proposed wage cuts.
Even without any wage cuts, Davidson said school divisions still face a $54 million shortfall in operational funding from the province this fall. Money saved reducing wages would go back to the province, not to schools themselves.
"We're dealing with really, really substantial funding shortfalls this year," said Davidson.
Heavier workload, fewer work days
Saskatoon Public Schools, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, and the Chinook School Division have already issued layoff notices to support workers.
Fewer students will be eligible for bus service this fall. Caretakers in some divisions say their workload next year will effectively double.
'We're dealing with really, really substantial funding shortfalls.' - Shawn Davidson, Saskatchewan School Boards Association president
CUPE said the number of working days next fall is being chopped for support staff in Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division, Sun West School Division, and Living Sky School Division.
School support workers represented by the Service Employees International Union-West estimated the wage rollback amounted to losing two weeks of pay.
"They're not making a ton of money," said Barbara Cape, president of the SEIU-West, which represents more than 800 workers in the Chinook, South East Cornerstone, and Christ the Teacher school divisions.
A 'lose-lose situation'
"Quite frankly it is a false choice — either you take a 3.5 per cent compensation cut or you get laid off," said Cape. "It's a lose-lose situation."
She said school board officials and her members negotiated and ratified two collective agreements shortly before the province announced public sector wage cuts.
Cape said the union "politely declined" one board's subsequent request to re-open the agreement.
"Ultimately, the people paying for this are the students and families we serve," said Cape. "How do we want to have a world-class education system when we're paying poverty wages?"
Teachers' wages being negotiated
The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation's current collective agreement expires at the end of August. Negotiators have met twice, with another meeting scheduled later this month.
Education Minister Don Morgan has said he is not asking boards to breach existing collective bargaining agreements.
"We're going to meet those targets, and we're going to meet them by doing some hard work at the bargaining table," Morgan told the legislature on April 12.
Boards coping with $54M in cuts
Local school boards negotiate leave, compensation for extracurricular activities and various other working conditions for their own staff through local implementation negotiation committees. To date, Davidson said none of those committees have attempted to incorporate that 3.5 per cent cut to compensation into their agreement.
In January, Morgan told CBC he would like to scrap the negotiation committees.
Morgan met with CUPE education workers last week, who urged him to rethink wage cuts.
"We gave him a couple examples of the spinoff effect of what this cruel, mean-spirited and disgusting budget has created in the education sector," said Christianson.
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In 2009, Saskatchewan's government removed school boards' power to set their own mill rates. As such, schools must operate under a grant formula calculated by education officials.
"Every board is taking some level of just pure funding reduction as a result of this budget," Davidson said.