B.C. Premier John Horgan has weighed in on the dispute between striking Saanich school support workers and the district, saying the workers should accept their employer’s latest offer.
Talks broke off between the two sides Wednesday, ensuring the district’s 18 schools that have been closed since last Monday will remain empty.
The Saanich School District took the unusual step of publishing its latest offer in full on its website Wednesday, which includes a seven to 12.8 per cent wage increase and other measures.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Horgan said the deal is “superior” to other employer offers that have been accepted elsewhere in B.C.
“I would suggest that the members of CUPE — if they have the opportunity to vote on the package — they should accept it,” he said.
CUPE 441 president Dean Coates called the premier’s comments disappointing.
“It’s rather funny that the premier would ask us to accept a deal that would not meet the needs of the students and not meet the needs of his government to include inclusive education,” Coates said.
CUPE 441 represents 500 education assistants, technical support staff, library technicians, family counsellors, custodial and maintenance staff and others.
It argues striking workers are paid between 30 cents to $4 less than their counterparts in neighbouring districts.
The differential exists because the union opted for better benefits decades ago, according to the district.
Coates says the existing wage difference is causing problems in recruiting and retaining staff, which has not been addressed in the latest offer, despite the proposed wage increase.
“Children’s education is falling through the cracks because of these shortages, and people being asked to double and triple up, postings aren’t being filled,” he said.
“So unless that is actually addressed in a meaningful way, the premier and the district do not profess to offer meaningful education.”
The union has accused the district of leaving money on the table that could be further used to meet the union’s demands. But Saanich School Superintendent Dave Eberwein said that’s not true.
“All monies available to us at the local bargaining table have been accessed,” he said, adding the province’s job evaluation committee fund of $3.9 million over three years cannot be accessed in this case.
“That money is for the provincial committee to take a look at job rates and classifications province-wide,” he explained. “Saanich is not the only jurisdiction in K-12 with a wage disparity. That fund cannot be accessed by local parties at the local bargaining table.”
The dispute has left parents of an estimated 7,300 students scrambling to find child care during the day, which has also put a strain on daycare staff.
Brent McCullough, who works at In the Garden Childcare Centre, says the kids who are suffering the most from the overwhelming demand have been those with special needs.
“We don’t normally have staff here during those hours that now everyone needs the care for, so we need to limp by with who we have,” he said. “The ones who need the one-to-one care, we don’t have the people there to suddenly help them.”
McCullough added parents who were already clients before the strike are also struggling to afford keeping their child there all day, rather than just after-school care.
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