British Columbia

Classes cancelled again in Saanich school district as support staff 'hold out' on strike

Eighteen schools in the Saanich School District are closed for a second straight day Tuesday as support workers continue to strike over wages.

Teachers staying off the job in solidarity with 500 workers striking over wages

Support workers walk the picket line outside Kelset Elementary School in North Saanich on Monday. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Eighteen schools in the Saanich school district have been closed for a second straight day Tuesday as support workers continue their strike over unfair wages, with negotiations between the union and the district at an impasse.

With teaching staff respecting their colleagues' picket lines, there are no classes for 7,300 students at K-12 schools in North Saanich, Central Saanich and Saanich.

The strike began Monday after 500 unionized support workers rejected the district's final offer to settle an ongoing wage dispute over the weekend. 

The biggest issue for support staff is wage parity: some workers in the district make several dollars less, per hour, than their counterparts in neighbouring school districts such as Victoria and Sooke.

Meanwhile, the Saanich district has said it can only shrink the gap by so much because it is bound to bargain within a provincial framework, which only allows for a two per cent wage increase per year.

Signs outside Brentwood Elementary School in Brentwood Bay, B.C. on Monday. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

James Taylor, president of the Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils in the Saanich School District, said he's been speaking with both the union and the district and doesn't see an end to the deadlock.

"I can't see a way out in this particular situation," Taylor said.

"This is something that they have to work out themselves," he told CBC's On The Island on Tuesday morning. "My fear is that what is needed to resolve this situation, really, is not within their control ... and if we don't find a solution within the next few days or next week, we're really going to see a heavy toll."

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 441 president Dean Coates said lower wages have been a problem for decades, creating recruitment and retention problems with staff. He previously described the union as being in a "constant state of triage" over the issue.

On Monday, Coates said workers aren't budging until either the district or the province finds a way to get to parity.

"The bargaining committee's directive from the membership is to hold out," Coates said Monday.

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

District superintendent Dave 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.

Eberwein said the jobs that lag behind in wages are typically in professions dominated by women.

Board vice-chair Elsie McMurphy said the board fully agrees the salaries need to be addressed, but said its hands are still tied by government mandate.

"We have no dispute with CUPE's objectives of trying to bridge that gap," McMurphy said Tuesday. 

"I think it's highly unlikely that the province will intervene because literally hundreds of thousands of employees across the province are underneath this provincial framework ... so it would be a tough nut to crack to think that the province might open up the coffers for Saanich."

In a statement, the finance ministry said most support staff unions in B.C. have negotiated new contracts, and encouraged the Saanich School District and CUPE 441 to do the same.

Parents of students have been told they need to find alternative care for their children while the 18 district schools are closed. Eberwein said the district has a goodwill agreement with child care facilities in some Saanich public schools to allow access to those sites. 

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)

With files from Kathryn Marlow, CBC's On The Island and the Canadian Press