B.C.’s Education Minister says he is “optimistic” coming negotiations with support staff will avert a potential strike.
Peter Fassbender was asked several times about talks with CUPE BC, when he spoke with reporters Wednesday about the next school year.
The union, which represents more than 27,000 K-12 workers, such as education assistants and clerical staff, earlier this month said bargaining delays could disrupt classes.
Mr. Fassbender, in a conference call, said he’s hopeful it won’t come to that.
“I’m very optimistic, as the negotiators get back at the table on the 4th, 5th and 6th of September, that they’re going to do their job. They’re all very capable. I believe we can find a solution. That is my hope. And they are going to work together to get there,” he said.
The minister added he wants “to see a school year without any disruption. That’s our goal.”
The union, which has said the province is taking its workers for granted while it tries to hammer out a 10-year deal with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, is pushing for a wage increase.
Colin Pawson, chair of the CUPE BC K-12 Presidents’ Council, said Wednesday the workers have not received a raise since 2009 and earn an average wage of $24,000 a year.
“We’re not these fat cats. We’re just people who have families in the school system, who shop in the local community,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Pawson echoed the minister’s hope that negotiations will go well. But if next week’s talks don’t prove fruitful, he said the union will have to consider its options.
“One of our options is strike, naturally,” he said.
The collective agreements for the workers – who include custodians, bus drivers, and those in the trades – expired more than a year ago.
The union this week announced that it would launch a television and radio campaign to build support for the workers’ efforts to keep schools “clean, safe, and inclusive.”
The BCTF has said it will stand in solidarity with the workers, but has not explained what that entails.
Mr. Fassbender said these are fiscally challenging times that call for innovative ways to use resources.
He also fielded questions during the call about declining enrolment and B.C.’s education plan. He was, at one point, asked if the province will place a greater emphasis on skills training for students. He said it’s something that’s being looked at.
“We’re looking at a minimum of Grade 9, 10. Even in elementary school, start talking about different careers, at an earlier age, so that young people start thinking it isn’t just about being a doctor or a lawyer, that there is a great life that can be had in being a plumber, or a pipefitter, or a welder,” he said.