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Students won’t be disrupted as CUPE and school district sign tentative deal
Thousands of parents across the Okanagan Valley – including hundreds in Osoyoos – are breathing a sigh of relief as job action and a potential strike by unionized school support staff was averted after a tentative deal was struck during last-ditch negotiations on Monday.
Unionized support staff at Osoyoos Secondary School and Osoyoos Elementary School, including bus drivers, custodians and clerical staff, were scheduled to walk the picket lines Tuesday as part of a job action and would have been in a legal strike position Wednesday morning if a deal wasn’t reached.
The tentative contract, which has yet to be ratified, expires next June as members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 523 had been working without a contract for more than a year.
The potential job action affected students in School District 53 (Okanagan Similkameen), School District 67(Okanagan Skaha) and School District 83(North Okanagan Shuswap).
Rob Hewitt, the bargaining committee chair for Local 523, which represents approximately 1,100 employees at three school boards, including School District 53 (Okanagan Similkameen), said he’s satisfied with the new contract and he fully expects the deal to be ratified.
“We didn’t want to go on strike and I’m glad we we were able to get a deal done,” said Hewitt. “Both sides worked hard and we were able to achieve our goal of getting a new deal in place.”
The new deal expires at the end of June of 2014 as CUPE workers affected by this deal have been working without a contract since the summer of 2012, said Hewitt.
He credited the Okanagan Labour Relations Council, which represented the three school districts, for coming to the table with an open mind.
“It was a tough round of bargaining, but ultimately both sides put their heads together to come up with a compromise avoiding further job action,” said Hewitt.
The agreement between the union and the three school districts, which implemented the Provincial Framework Agreement providing an end rate 3.5 percent wage increase, will now be brought to a vote of CUPE Local 523 members for ratification.
“Our members wanted a fair deal,” said Hewitt. “We achieved a reasonable wage adjustment, while protecting workers’ benefits.”
Marieze Tarr, chair of School District 53, was equally pleased that a new contract has been signed and labour peace will ensure student learning won’t be interrupted in any way.
“We are very pleased that a new agreement has been reached and this is all behind us,” she said. “We can now move forward working together with our CUPE employees to ensure our students can be successful in school. We value our CUPE employees and believe they are deserving of the increase they will receive and we’re very pleased a deal has been reached and there will be no interruption of services.”
Representatives of the parties negotiated a two-year Provincial Framework Agreement in September 2013, which all parties had recommended to their members for ratification, however, the union issued a 72-hour strike notice on Thursday following a meeting with school district administrators to deal with the issue of clawing back long-term disability benefits, said Hewitt.
Hewitt said he will be spending the next several days meeting with CUPE members across the three school districts to provide details about the tentative agreement.
As of Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t know when the membership would be voting on the new contract, except to say voting in all three districts will be completed by the end of business on December 11.
CUPE’s bargaining committee has given unanimous support for the new contract and he expects the membership to overwhelmingly approve the deal, said Hewitt.
Things changed dramatically over the weekend as the school board issued a terse response Friday afternoon to the union’s demands.
Tarr expressed disappointment with the union’s decision to announce possible strike action.
The three school districts bargain together and have a single collective agreement with the approximately 1,100 members of Local 523.
The three Okanagan School Districts had saved on premiums they paid for with a top up to the long-term disability plan which is no longer required due to the Public Education Benefits Trust now improving the benefit, said Hewitt.
Many longtime employees haven’t had any significant improvements to their benefits package in three or four rounds of collective bargaining dating back, in some cases, to more than 10 years ago, said Hewitt.
The workers deserved a slight increase in wages and protection of the benefits package that had been part of previous collective agreements, he said.
School District 53, however, took issue with the union’s actions and statements heading into negotiations over the weekend.
“We are concerned that the union is threatening strike action and disruption to students, parents and the normal operation of our schools by mischaracterizing an employee benefits issue,” said Tarr in the school district’s statement.
“Contrary to the union’s statements that the school district demanded a concession to claw back employee long-term disability savings, we need to be clear. There has been no claw back of any collective agreement provision related to employees’ long-term disability plan. The way in which the plan is being funded is different, but the competitive benefit level available to our support staff remains unchanged.”
Unionized workers will receive retroactive pay dating back to more than one year as a result of the new deal as the workers have been working without a contract since the summer of 2012, said Hewitt.
Students and parents would have been deeply affected if a strike had occurred as elementary and secondary teachers from across the district were expected to honour a longstanding commitment to not cross any picket line.
This latest set of negotiations was difficult, but resulted in a good deal that is fair to union members and the school district, said Hewitt.