Sidney council has asked provincial education minister Rob Fleming to appoint a mediator to help resolve the current school strike affecting communities on the Saanich Peninsula.
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.
Sidney council considered the item as a late addition to its agenda during its regular meeting.
“Students have been unable to attend school as a result of the strike,” said Coun. Chad Rintoul, who proposed the motion. “This has created stress and hardships on members of our community and I believe it is incumbent on the provincial government to be party of the process,” he said.
Rintoul said his motion give voices to residents, whom the strike has affected.
(By way of background, both sides were working with a mediator before the start of the strike).
Sidney’s appeal to the provincial government on the eve of a planned parents’ rally outside the offices of School District No. 63. The rally organized by Families Supporting CUPE 441 runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 2125 Keating Cross Rd. Students will also rally outside of Fleming’s constituency office.
Coun. Scott Garnett was the lone member of council who opposed the motion.
“I do feel for the residents in our community and their children, especially those who are approaching graduation,” he said. “I have had children, who have gone through the system. I know what this is like. However, I also fully respect collective bargaining rights and the rights of union to strike.”
Garnett also suggested that the strike has not gone on long enough to justify mediation. “Although it seems very difficult on those in the community and their children, it [the strike] is only actually in the third week, which by standards is not that long to be on strike in terms of negotiations.”
Garnett also argued that an arbitrator rather than a mediator would be more helpful. (Arbitration resembles a court process with one side emerging as ‘winner’ while mediation sees a neutral third party help parties reach a settlement).
“I’m also not sure whether a council of a municipal government should be making recommendations to the provincial government on how they should be negotiating one of our labour issues,” he said.
Rintoul said he respects those comments, but added that the motion does not pick sides. “It’s looking to compel the provincial government to get involved and to play a role in finding a resolution,” he said. “We have seen nothing by inaction from the province at this point, so I’d like to see our municipality to encourage them and we have every place to do.”
Municipalities represent the mechanism that collects and channels school taxes to the school districts, he said. “We are party to that process by way of the School Act.”
Coun. Sara Duncan said that she would generally agree with Garnett’s appeal to avoid straying into provincial responsibilities. But unless she has misinterpreted comments from local MLA Adam Olsen, Sidney is exactly following his appeal.
“I feel okay with doing what our MLA asked us to do and helping to step up the pressure on the provincial government,” she said.
The provincial ministry of finance said in a statement that the government supports the collective bargaining process. “We believe that solutions are best found at the bargaining table,” it reads. What the statement calls the “most generous bargaining mandate in over a decade” has allowed workers and employers to make “real improvements to wages and working conditions” as nurses, paramedics, care aids and social workers have all reached deals. To date, 53 of the 69 K-12 bargaining locals across the province have ratified agreements, it reads.
“We believe School District 63 and CUPE 441 can too, and we encourage them to continue discussions at the bargaining table,” it reads.
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