Seven-year-old Connor McCune, attending Sidney Elementary School, stands in front of mother Kari McCune, with Annilee Armstrong and Carolyn Moeller outside the offices of School District 63. They are among 150 people as Families Supporting CUPE 411 held a rally in support of striking workers. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Both sides in Saanich School District strike question calls for mediation

Sidney council has called on the province to appoint a mediator

Parents affected by the on-going strike in School District 63 welcome Sidney’s call for mediation, but like its superintendent, wonder whether it will make a difference.

On Tuesday, Sidney council asked Education Minister Rob Fleming to appoint a mediator to help resolve the current school strike affecting communities on the Saanich Peninsula.

Carolyn Moeller, of Families Supporting CUPE 411, said she is concerned Sidney’s appeal is not going to help. “I’m not saying this a bad idea, but in the summer, when they issued their strike notice in August, they had two sessions with a mediator during the summer. That dismally failed. That is why they went on strike in the first place.” That said, mediation might work this time around, she said. “I’m all for them trying.”

Moeller made those comments while standing outside the district’s office, where she was among local parents showing support for CUPE 411 members. Some 150 people attended the event.

RELATED: Saanich Peninsula parents accuse district of leveraging deadline

SD63 superintendent Dave Eberwein said the district has worked with a mediator in the past and is prepared to work with one again in the future.

“But it is important to note that the mediator still has to work within the provincial public sector bargaining mandate,” he said. “Engaging with the mediator when one party is not able to negotiate within that mandate will result in the same situation, where the demands still far exceed what we are capable of putting on the table,” he said. “But we are certainly prepared to work with a mediator if that would help move this situation to resolution, as we were in the past.”

RELATED: Sidney calls on provincial government to appoint mediator to resolve strike

Moeller said she expects the district to “dig in its heels” and does not foresee any immediate to the strike.

“What most parents are concerned about is ‘where is the end?’” she said. While a strike lasting two to three weeks might be “uncomfortable,” Moeller said she is not worried yet. “But if you are talking about Christmas and January, that is a little bit different than two to three weeks.”

Negotiations ceased last week and it is not clear yet when they will resume.

Eberwein said the school district is more than willing to bargain at any time. “We sent the same message to the union repeatedly,” he said. “We are unable to bargain outside the mandate. If you come to the table, asking to bargain outside the mandate, we are exactly in the same position as we were before. So there is no point coming to the table if we are not playing the same set of rules at the table. We are happy to talk about the money that is on the table. We are happy to move it around … but there isn’t any extra money at the table.”

More than 7,000 students attending schools in Sidney, North Saanich, Central Saanich and parts of Saanich have been out of school since members of CUPE 441, representing educational assistants and support workers, went on strike Oct. 28. The union is requesting comparable wages with surrounding school districts but has reached a stalemate in negotiations with SD63, extending the strike into its third week.

Striking workers risk losing various benefits for the next three years available under the umbrella agreement guiding support staff bargaining across British Columbia, unless they reach an agreement with the local school board by Nov. 30. The Provincial Framework Agreement calls for annual wage increases of two per cent for the next three years but leaves room for local provisions. The proposed annual increase would remain in place.

Local union officials, however, have deemed this framework insufficient in calling for measures that eliminate wage differences between support staff across district boundaries. To this end, they have asked the provincial government to increase the pot of money available, a request that the province has so far rejected.


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wolfgang.depner@peninsulanewsreview.com

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