British Columbia

18 schools closed in Saanich as support staff go on strike

The teachers' union has told the district that it will respect the pickets and Eberwein said they are the telling parents of its 7,300 students that they will have to find alternative care for their children.

No classes for 7,300 students Monday after teachers say they will respect support-worker pickets

Peal Duerksen and Marie Josee Rodrique, both education assistants, walk the picket line at Brentwood Bay Elementary on Oct. 28. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Eighteen schools in the Vancouver Island district of Saanich are closed Monday as support workers take strike action.

Teachers are supporting the action, meaning there are no classes for 7,300 students.

Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441 president Dean Coates said the district had asked his 500 members to reconsider its final offer, but that was rejected on Saturday.

Coates said support workers in Saanich have lower wages than their counterparts in other area school districts and it's a decades-old problem that causes recruitment and retention problems with staff. 

CUPE 441 president Dean Coates outside Brentwood Bay Elementary School on Oct. 28. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

"So, we're overworked, postings go unfilled, no replacements because they can't retain them, they go to the other districts," he said. "So, we're in a constant state of triage as a result of the low wages."

District superintendent Dave Eberwein said in an interview Sunday that the district has offered the union everything possible under the government-directed mandate of two per cent in each of three years.

He said they've also looked for other ways to increase salaries.

"There isn't another support staff offer out there in the province that is as good as this one," Eberwein said. "It doesn't completely bridge the wage disparity, but this is step one of two that we're looking at."

District superintendent Dave Eberwein says that the district has offered the union everything possible under the government-directed mandate of two per cent in each of three years. (CHEK News)

Alternative care for children

The teachers' union has told the district that it will respect the pickets. Eberwein said they are the telling parents of its 7,300 students that they will have to find alternative care for their children.

Eberwein said support workers are paid hourly wages that are lower than those in other area districts — by between 30 cents and $4 per hour — because the union opted for better benefits decades ago.

He said the jobs that lag behind in wage are typically inside professions dominated by women.

"Both the union and the board agree we need to address the salaries for education assistants," he said.

Striking CUPE 441 members pace outside Brentwood Bay Elementary School in Brentwood Bay, B.C., on Monday, the first day of strike for support workers in the Saanich school district. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

On top of the six per cent government mandated increase, they've been able to provide a salary lift for education assistants between 10 and 11.7 per cent over three-year term, Eberwein noted. 

A 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling reinstated class size provisions in B.C., effectively lowering them and creating a shortage of both teachers and education assistants in the province.

No new negotiations had been planned to between the two sides.

Coates said his membership is passionate about the wage increase because the workers need to provide for their own families.

"We are absolutely open to sitting down and having some meaningful discussions to finally reach an agreement that address our 40-year need for a wage adjustment." 

There are child care facilities in some Saanich public schools and Eberwein said they worked out a goodwill agreement with both unions to allow access to those sites. 

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