The new school year begins this week, and it's been a while since the year has kicked off with so much uncertainty in the education system.
Both public sector unions begin work without contracts, but this time it is the support staff (largely represented by CUPE) that is threatening to throw a wrench into the system.
Usually, the BC Teachers' Federation can be counted on to lead the offensive against a government, but it has shifted gears somewhat and has let CUPE take centre stage.
CUPE's 27,000 members haven't had a raise in four years and they're looking at a two-per-cent hike for each of the two years of a proposed contract (the first year is already over). The government's position is that's fine, as long as the money to pay for the wage increases can be found within existing school board budgets.
And so a game of chicken between the provincial government and school boards is about to be begin, with CUPE watching with great interest and being in the odd position of actually hoping the government position will prevail (although it will never admit that).
School boards have been asked by the government to come up with "savings plans" that will pay for any costs resulting from a CUPE contract.
The government insists some boards have done just that, yet haven't identified which ones.
School trustees will no doubt complain about the unfairness of it all, but I'm sure Education Minister Peter Fassbender has been made aware that every year a number of school boards say it is flat out impossible to balance their budgets (as required by law) and then what do you know?
They table a balanced budget (albeit with some cuts in some places).
Of course, school trustees can make a fair case that the system is inadequately funded, since every year they grapple with escalating cost pressures such as MSP premiums, inflation, pension adjustments etc.
But since they manage to balance their budgets, don't be surprised if the government says a wage increase is simply one more cost pressure that has to be dealt with.
Meanwhile, CUPE has launched a television ad campaign aimed at wooing public support for their cause. Given that it has been the BCTF that has been the main foil of the government for years and is far more associated with disruptions in the school system than support staff, I suspect CUPE may have a chance of winning some support.
One factor that may work in CUPE's favour is just what kind of jobs are covered under the term "support staff." Many people no doubt think of janitors and front-office clerical staff when it comes to non-BCTF employees, but almost half of CUPE's membership is "education assistants" who for the most part work with children with special needs.
And those education assistants, who perform duties that no doubt are strongly supported by the public, only work from "bell to bell," which translates to about 25 hours a week.
Many need a second job to make a decent living.
It will be hard for either the government or school boards to make the case such employees aren't worth a small wage increase.
Of course, any public support CUPE gains can be quickly thrown away with a picket line around a school for a few days. That's why I think the union will be more creative and less disruptive with their tactics to put pressure on their employers.
And that's why I'll be surprised if CUPE doesn't get some kind of wage hike at the end of the day (perhaps not retroactively, but more likely for the coming year).
Once a few school boards file those savings plans that create the ability to fund a wage hike, pressure will build on other boards to follow suit. If they don't, an unusual scenario could develop: because CUPE has a separate collective agreement with each school district, it's possible some of its members would get wage hikes in some districts, but not in others.
Of course, even if the CUPE contract problems are resolved, another huge challenge looms on the horizon. That is getting the BCTF to agree to a long-term contract.
But those talks don't even begin until October.
Hopefully the CUPE dispute isn't still dragging on by then, or parents and students will have good reason to worry about a school year that may gradually deteriorate as the days go by.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.
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