Support staff at Brandon-area schools hold strike vote to spur talks
Non-teaching staff at Brandon School Division have gone without a wage increase since contract expired in 2018
Support staff at Brandon School Division have held a strike vote to try and convince their employer to negotiate.
Members in the southwestern Manitoba division voted 99 per cent in favour of a strike mandate, the provincial branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees announced Thursday.
The vote does not mean a strike is imminent, but it gives the union the option to call a strike if necessary.
CUPE Local 737 has only had one negotiating session with the school division this year, president Jamie Rose said.
"We want to have a discussion with them and work through it like we usually do. That's our end goal."
"Nobody wants to strike, but … if they push us there then that's what we'll have to do."
Fight over wage freeze
The union, which represents 600 school support staff, is trying to prompt more negotiations. That's been hamstrung by the province urging the school division to freeze salaries and compensation for two years, Rose said.
The provincial government has tried to impose that mandate on a number of public sector workers, even after a court deemed Manitoba's push for a public sector wage freeze unconstitutional last year.
The province has filed an appeal of that ruling.
"After spring break, I had a conversation with the division," said Rose. "And they said, 'Look, we've got a mandate [from the province to freeze wages]. We can't break this mandate.'
"And I said, 'Well, they're not our employer.'"
Earlier this year, CUPE 737 asked to negotiate a new collective agreement.
Given the court's decision, the union thought its bargaining efforts would no longer be hobbled by a demand for pay freezes, Rose said. But the province says because of the pandemic, a wage freeze is still necessary.
Brandon School Division did not immediately respond Thursday night for a request for comment.
The province has repeatedly argued that setting mandates during collective bargaining is well within the rights of the government.
Asked about the strike vote, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said the province will leave the bargaining to the employer and its workers.
Rose said support staff are frustrated other bargaining groups, including teachers, have reached a new collective agreement — but not his.
"It's disheartening … that one group would be looked after, and another group isn't."
The CUPE 737 members have worked without a new collective agreement since 2018.
The union is asking for wage increases in line with the many recently settled teachers' contracts — a 1.6 per cent salary bump for the 2018-19 school year, 1.4 per cent for the following year, 0.5 per cent for the current school year and a cost of living increase for the next school year.
Several other school divisions have reached new agreements with their support staff, which mostly include pay increases.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said a strong mandate to strike is a sign of things to come if the Progressive Conservative government passes Bill 64, the education reform legislation which will centralize decision-making for public schools with government.