Local MLA Adam Olsen called the recent strike of support workers in School District No. 63 the most difficult local issue in his political career.
“It was tough in the sense that you have seen this unjust situation evolve, where [SD63] is at a competitive disadvantage that needs to be dealt with, and as it evolves, the difficulty changes,” said Olsen in a year-end-interview with the Peninsula News Review.
“It evolves from being an unjust system that is potentially going to be perpetuated if they just sign another agreement to the impact that it was having on parents and families.”
Support workers represented by CUPE 441 went on strike between Oct. 28 and Nov. 17, largely over the issue of pay parity.
The strike affected some 7,000 students. It also had a distinct political dimension, as Olsen and New Democratic Education Minister Rob Fleming found themselves trading exchanges in the Legislative Assembly, with Olsen calling on Fleming to resolve the dispute, an appeal that Fleming refused. New Democrats have governed the province as a minority government since summer 2017 with support from three B.C. Greens, including Olsen.
“As government has rightly pointed out, the best place not to negotiate these issues is in the legislature,” said Olsen. The situation in this case impacted a school district that lies mostly within Olsen’s riding of Saanich North and the Islands with some of the school district falling within the riding of New Democrat Lana Popham.
When asked whether the current government would have acted differently if the pay disparity had existed in a school district largely inside a New Democratic riding, Olsen said no.
“I want to say that in the strongest possible term, because I don’t think that this was a partisan issue,” said Olsen. “The issues which Minister Fleming faced were real issues. They are not political. They were what they are, because of the decisions they decided to go with overall. But the conditions still exist.
There is an ongoing teachers negotiations and they were certainly watching this. Because they kept education in the [sustainable services negotiating mandate], there are a whole pile of other public service sectors, who were looking at the results of this.”
By way of background, the sustainable services negotiating mandate applies to all public sector employers with unionized employees whose collective agreements expire on or after Dec. 31, 2018.
The three-year framework mandates wage increases of two per cent in each year and includes a “me too” clause which adjusts other public sector agreements if future public sector agreements go beyond the 2-2-2 rule. Olsen added later that the strike was the “last thing in the world” that Popham wanted to deal with. “There was nothing partisan about this,” he said.
“They weren’t trying to hang me out to dry, and I can tell you, if they were, that would be the most inappropriate thing that anybody can do, because there were far too many people who were hurting. I’m pretty certain that this was not the case.”
This said, Olsen also would like to see a different approach towards public education. “I think I have a fundamentally different perspective on how we should be treating public education than my colleagues in the BC NDP,” he said. “I think we have to ask the question as to whether or not public education should be part of the [sustainable services negotiating mandate], whether or not we should be investing much more in the cornerstone of our society.
“Currently, it is being treated just like everybody else.”
While the province might be getting top global marks for its educational system, Olsen said the system is slowly eroding.
“I happen to be pretty well aware of what’s going in my kids’ classrooms,” he said.
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