British Columbia

With Saanich school strike into its 3rd week, B.C. Liberal leader demands province appoint a mediator

The strike by Saanich School District support staff has left 7,000 students without classses for three weeks.

'We're seeing a strange lack of response,' says Andrew Wilkinson.

Support staff in the Saanich School District have been off work for three weeks, leaving 7,000 students without classes. (CHEK News)

The strike by Saanich School District support staff on Vancouver Island is into its third week, leaving 7,000 students without classes, as unionized teachers refuse to cross picket lines.

The CUPE members — who include educational assistants, custodians, bus drivers — are demanding wage parity, claiming their pay is significantly lower than neighbouring school districts like Greater Victoria. 

The Saanich School District is askiing union members to reconsider its offer. It says it's the best it can do under the NDP government's sustainable bargaining mandate that limits annual wage increases to two per cent over a three-year contract. 

The Liberal opposition has been critical of the way in which the province is handling labour disputes. Its leader, Andrew Wilkinson, says there's been no sign of any activity on the part of the Labour Ministry.

"We're seeing a strange lack of response," Wilkinson told Gregor Craigie, host of On the Island

"[Parents] are scrambling to find daycare and support staff to take care of their children, or they're skipping work. So there's a lot of pressure on the island right now on labour issues."

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson Wilkinson says he wants to see the province impose mediation. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Mediation possibilities 

Strikes in B.C. are currently affecting public schools, bus drivers in Metro Vancouver, faculty at a university in the north and forestry workers in Nanaimo.

Wilkinson says he wants to see the province impose mediation in a number of disputes.

"There is the prospect of mediation that can be imposed by the labour minister to bring the parties to the table, whether it's Western Forest Products or whether it's the Saanich School District," said Wilkinson. 

"Mediators can go into these situations and get the parties to come back to the table and talk about what concessions can be made."

The province has what's called a "me too" salary clause under B.C.'s Sustainable Services Negotiating Mandate.

The clause means if a public sector union is able to get more than a general two per cent per year increase on salary, the additional increase is applied to all of the other agreements it may have. 

"What's clearly happened here is that a couple of unions have figured out that they can hold the government's feet to the fire. And sadly, we see the current NDP government just like a deer in the headlights. We say appoint a mediator, bring the parties to the table, see if you can come to an orderly conclusion."

A Saanich School District student protests outside Education Minister Rob Fleming's office, in hopes of going back to school. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

Province trusts bargaining process

In a statement, the Ministry of Finance in collaboration with the Ministry of Education say they support the collective bargaining process. 

"We believe that solutions are best found at the bargaining table. We have the most generous bargaining mandate in over a decade that allows workers and employers to make real improvements to wages and working conditions," read the statement. 

The two ministries say nurses, paramedics, care aids and social workers have all reached deals within the province's mandate. It says 53 of the 69 K-12 bargaining locals at public schools across the province have come to agreements through bargaining.

"We believe School District 63 and CUPE 441 [the two sides in the Saanich school dispute] can too and we encourage them to continue discussions at the bargaining table."

Listen to the full story here

With files from On the Island

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