Halifax-area school support staff, pre-primary educators to strike Wednesday

On Wednesday, pre-primary classes will not be offered in Halifax Regional Centre for Education schools since early childhood educators will be on strike. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
On Wednesday, pre-primary classes will not be offered in Halifax Regional Centre for Education schools since early childhood educators will be on strike. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

School support staff for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education will strike at 12:01 a.m. AT Wednesday after failing to reach an agreement with the province.

CUPE Local 5047 represents more than 1,800 workers in the HRCE.

Schools will remain open in the Halifax area — with the exception of pre-primary classes — but support workers such as educational program assistants who help students requiring one-on-one care will be on the picket lines.

The striking workers include early childhood educators, educational program assistants, assistive technology support workers, child and youth care practitioners, Mi'kmaw and Indigenous student support workers, African Nova Scotian school support workers, SchoolsPlus community outreach workers and school library specialists.

"We had an understanding there would be there be some meaningful conversations today. But sadly that didn't happen," said CUPE Local 5047 president Chris Melanson.

He said the workers are not receiving enough support from the province.

"They're tired of making decisions of whether they should be putting food in the cupboard, in the fridge or paying for power. They're struggling to make ends meet."

In a Tuesday new release, Melanson said that CUPE is "very disappointed. We came back to the bargaining table today with a strong mandate from our members, hoping that government would be prepared to negotiate, but there was no willingness whatsoever."

"It's clear that government is not prepared to give our members the respect they deserve, and at this point, we have no choice but to withdraw our services."

Only CUPE members in the Halifax area will go on strike. Over the weekend, they voted to reject a tentative agreement that had been reached by the province and their union last month.

Other CUPE locals in other parts of the province representing school support workers have voted to accept the agreements.

In a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon Labour Relations Minister Allan MacMaster criticized the decision to strike.

"We believe the offer that was presented, and ratified by all other locals, is fair to employees and taxpayers, and in the best interests of students and families," he said.

"It is unfortunate that CUPE is casting blame on the government for this strike given the tentative agreement was reached through fair collective bargaining. This means the agreement was accepted by the union executive and recommended to their membership for ratification."

Because CUPE members in the rest of Nova Scotia have already voted to accept the latest contract offer, union members in Halifax are trying to "undo wage parity within their own membership across the province," he added.

Wages are sticking point

Both Melanson and Steve Gallagher, the regional executive director of the HRCE, said Tuesday that wages were the outstanding sticking point.

"It wasn't enough money in their pocket," said Melanson of the wage proposals. "It wasn't enough for the work that they have been doing. They definitely don't feel that government looked out for them and wanted to compensate them for the great jobs that they've already been doing."

He said union members are looking for a four-year contract with a wage increase of more than what the employer was offering — 6.5 per cent over a three-year contract.

Impacts on families

In a message to families Monday afternoon, Gallagher said in the event of a labour disruption, schools will remain open, student transportation will continue as usual and the Excel before-and-after school program will operate.

On Tuesday, Gallagher said principals have resumed planning for students who require the support of educational program assistants (EPAs) and how they will access services safely, and more information will be shared as it becomes available.

Meanwhile, some parents of children who rely on educational program assistants said they will be disproportionately affected by the strike.

Heather Langley and her husband both work and have an 11-year-old daughter with non-verbal autism who is in Grade 5. She said the lack of appropriate support would be devastating for children with disabilities who need special support and who already lost valuable school time during the pandemic.

"This tells me the government not coming to an agreement to pay support staff a fair wage, a living wage, is that they don't support inclusion," Langley said.

"They know that this means our children will not be allowed to go to school and they're letting it happen."

Teagan Archer's son also has non-verbal autism and she says he requires one-on-one support. Archer said the HRCE knew there was the possibility of a strike for weeks and no safeguards were put in place for children with disabilities or those who need additional support.

"A lot of parents out there are going to be put in a really vulnerable situation because child care for a child who has either high physical needs or social needs can be not only hard to find, but extremely expensive when you have to find it privately and at short notice," she said.

Support workers perform a difficult job, Archer said, and they have her support.

Heather Rose has two boys. Her eight-year-old son, Aidan, has Down syndrome and will be staying home as there is no support staff in place for him at school during the strike.

Rose said the COVID-19 lockdowns have shown that children who have complex needs don't function well with online learning.

She said the school said it will only be able to provide her son with between 30 minutes and an hour of online learning a week.

"I believe that there's a human rights issue here. To say that these children who require additional support are not allowed to be in school, it feels very uncomfortable," Rose said.

" I think they have a duty to find a way to make this work to accommodate my son."

Like the other parents CBC spoke to, Rose said support staff deserve to be paid for the "incredible" work they do.