The Victoria Day long weekend, so recently in our rearview mirror, has always been a bit of a landmark in public education. For teachers and students alike it is the last turn in our school year before the homestretch.
The homestretch will, however, look very different this year in the schools serviced by the Halifax Regional Center for Education (HRCE), where hundreds of key educational support staff remain on strike, locked in a dispute with the Houston government over what can only be described as paltry wages.
For those of you who have not been following along at home, education support workers here in Halifax are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and their regional affiliate, Local 5047. They include such classifications as Library Support Specialists (LSSs), Mi’kmaq Indigenous Student Support Workers (MISSWs), Early Childhood Educators (ECEs), and African Nova Scotian Student Support Workers (ANSSSWs) to name a few. The largest group represented by 5047 are the Educational Program Assistants (EPAs) who work predominantly with our students with special needs.
Sometime in the early hours of April 18th, the government and the bargaining team from CUPE reached a deal on a new collective agreement. (The group had been without a contract for almost three years). The deal, which government has characterized as fair and fiscally responsible, would see wages increase by a total of 6.5%. There was also, (if social media is to be trusted) a promise from the government to look into providing wage parity across the province in this sector.
Since people doing the exact same job in different areas of our province are paid on differing salary scales, this last bit had some appeal to folks outside of metro, many of whom get paid less than their counterparts in the city. When the package was brought to the membership, every region voted to accept the contract.
Every region, that is, except for here in HRCE, where the membership, in no uncertain terms, told the government to take their 6.5% and stuff it.
Now, to be completely transparent, I do have a family member who works in educational support here in Halifax, and with whom I will undoubtedly be walking a picket line in the coming days. Bias duly noted. But even taking my direct involvement in this dispute into account, I believe that the Houston government has made a few major miscalculations on this one.
To start off with, the public support for these workers has been fairly resounding. Stories abound of strike sites being overwhelmed with donations. Parents have also seemed universally supportive, with many speaking out about their frustrations with the government for not reaching a deal. So a swing and a miss for the Tories on that one.
When it comes to the wage pattern, the government has also whiffed. Wage patterns are obviously important to governments, and they are optically appealing to taxpayers. It should be recognized, however, that setting a wage pattern is not about low wage employees like these folks, but rather about those who come next in the bargaining rounds. Everyone watching this is aware that teachers are about to enter negotiations, and with such things as school violence on the rise and a supreme court decision on Bill 75 in their back pocket, I doubt 6.5% will be satisfactory anyway, regardless of wage pattern rhetoric.
Then there is the timing of the thing. Both Premier Tim Houston and Minister of Education Becky Druhan may be content to sit back and allow this thing to play out over the summer, when public interest may wane. Really, there is only a month left of school, and when it comes to choosing between the well being of our most vulnerable students and saving a few bucks on the backs of education workers, the choice seems obvious. Don’t go back to the table, let the workers strike until summer, then simply starve the union out.
But here’s the thing. I don’t believe that either Mr. Houston (a chartered accountant) or Ms. Druhan (a lawyer) have any idea what it is like to try and get by on less than $40,000.00 per year.
Let me help.
At $40,000.00 per year, the average educational worker takes home about $900.00 every two weeks, give or take, after deductions and benefits (Many make less than that, but let’s keep it simple). The average EPA in Halifax works 7 hours per day. That works out, on a 5 day week, to about $12.85 per hour, take home.
Because local 5047 is part of CUPE, picketers are currently being asked to walk a line for 4 hours per day. They are paid by CUPE’s national strike fund to the tune of $300.00 per week. That works out, on a 5 day week, to about $15.00 per hour, take home.
Consider that for a moment. In this province, full-time educational support staff are taking home a higher hourly wage when they are on the picket line than when they are in our classrooms.
Anyone other than me think that may give them some staying power?
To further demonstrate the ridiculous position the province has put us in, we can’t forget that while these folks are in schools they can’t actually do anything else but work with the kids. They have no capacity to earn any extra money until school lets out. However, if an EPA currently walks a picket line between 8am and noon, they have the rest of the day to secure other employment. If they are already working a second job, (many are), they are now available to work more hours. Either way, their household income increases.
So much for starving them out.
Finally, we are coming into what is generally the busiest hiring season of the year. Assuming these folks get tired of walking the line, there will be ample opportunity for many of them to simply drift away into other professions. Once that happens, the government will need to do something, once this is all over, to either entice new workers into these positions or to entice experienced ones to come back.
I would love to see the economics of a plan in which that particular option would somehow be cheaper than giving the current workforce a decent raise.
Again, I want to acknowledge my own bias here. But I, like other teachers in the province, know the impact these people have on the students they work with. It is no exaggeration to say that in many cases, the support workers are the only thing keeping some kids in school. They are dedicated, compassionate, and have traditionally been willing to do the job for very little money and even less recognition.
However, considering the current state of affairs, one wonders how long individual households are going to hang on before drifting off to greener employment pastures.
Once that happens, I can’t imagine a scenario in which we get those workers to return to our schools.
Our government needs to wrap this up quickly, or HRCE will be in very dire straits come September.
One response to “Lack of economic understanding by government set to leave schools in dire straits.”
EPAs, or EAs, as they are called in other parts of the province, are already leaving for greener pastures, despite this current development. I am a veteran teacher working in one of the best schools, in my humble opinion, in another part of the province. We just had two of our long time EAs leave for a “better” job. They had had enough of the low wages, the changing conditions and behaviors, and the lack of appreciation this province has shown them. The province should be on bended knee with make-up flowers in tow, trying hard to fix this situation ASAP.
Once again, thanks for your enlightening and thoughtful commentary!