This week, parents, teachers and students will all be holding their collective breath, hoping for an 11th hour agreement to be reached between Premier Tim Houston’s Tory government and the approximately 5400 education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), who are in a legal strike position as of April 21st.
CUPE, which represents a variety of education support workers across the province, has been trying to hammer out a bargain for its members since about 2020 when the last of the various regional agreements ran out. The final hurdle standing in the way of a contract being signed seems to be coming down, perhaps not surprisingly, to money.
There are, of course, the standard two sides to this issue. According to a statement from Education Minister Becky Druhan, “employers have offered a generous compensation package to employees with significant wage increases to many classifications.” For his part, CUPE 5047 President Chris Melanson recently told reporters “The employers have lots of time to come back to the table and negotiate a fair deal that helps all of our members, not just a select few”.
According to CUPE Nova Scotia President Nan McFadgen, many of the people who work in these positions are living at or below the poverty line, making under the provincial median income of $35,000.00 per year. For context, the poverty threshold in Halifax is currently $46,527.
As with most negotiations, we won’t know all the details until the sides either reach an agreement or until there is a full blown strike. However, if McFadgen’s numbers are correct, a raise is certainly in order. Trying to make ends meet on less than $35,000.00 in this economic climate is undoubtedly difficult, if not impossible. Add to that the current rash of violence that seems so prevalent in schools and the staffing shortages being faced across all sectors and one can hardly wonder why the union is calling for increased compensation.
And that’s the bit that has me befuddled. Considering the media attention recently drawn to school violence and the aforementioned incessant staffing shortages, the government’s contentedness to allow this negotiation to go down to the wire is a bit of a head scratcher.
The Tories were willing to offer early childhood educators a fairly substantial. “long overdue” raise a few months back. More recently they also managed to settle a labour dispute with education workers in the Annapolis Valley, although a little less willingly. Finally, they just committed to spending over 330 million dollars on retaining nurses and other health care professionals by offering cash bonuses of between 5 and 10 thousand dollars to each of them.
Kind of seems like they could spare a few bucks for folks making less than $35,000.00 a year.
Now before get lambasted for picking on healthcare, I come from a family of nurses. They deserve every cent they earn and then some. But for perspective, $5000.00 represents about 6.5% of an average nurse’s salary here in Nova Scotia, give or take.
For the education workers in question, it would take a 14.5% raise for their salaries to increase by about that same amount. To give all 5400 of them that same $5000.00 would cost government $27 million, or less than one tenth what they spent on healthcare with one announcement.
I support healthcare reform, I truly do. But surely to goodness the government has to see how petty they seem taking these folks to the mat?
Let’s look at it another way. We know that education and healthcare are inexorably linked. The healthcare system, by its nature is reactive, responding as need increases. Education, on the other hand is proactive, a key factor in preventing many healthcare needs from occuring in the first place. A strong education system invariably leads to better health outcomes for a population.
Yet within that very system, we have people who are essentially working in poverty, another key indicator of poor health outcomes. The final sad irony in all of this is that many of those self same people are working to support students from our most vulnerable populations; populations that are, themselves, more prone to needing access to publicly funded healthcare.
CUPE workers are pivotal cogs in Nova Scotia’s educational wheel, a wheel, it should be recognized, that is currently running on a fairly beat up rim. Bus drivers, educational assistants, outreach workers, and many other classifications make up the very foundation upon which the rest of us in the system stand.
What do you suppose will happen to that system if that foundation walks out the door?
Of course we need investments in healthcare. But increasing access to services is nowhere near as effective in combating shortages as is reducing demand.
That starts by this government recognizing that everyone who works for them deserves, at the very least, to be paid above the poverty line.