Province to resume talks with striking school support workers, no 'new' money on the table

A crowd at Grand Parade rallies to support striking school staff. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)
A crowd at Grand Parade rallies to support striking school staff. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)

A month into a strike by school support workers of the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, the two sides are headed back to the bargaining table.

But according to an email obtained by CBC News, it appears there won't be much room for flexibility on a key issue when talks resume on Friday.

"Let me be clear: Government will not be offering 'new' money in any form to end this job action," Angela Kidney, the executive director of labour relations for the government, wrote to CUPE representatives.

Members of CUPE Local 5047 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.

They've been off the job since May 10, after rejecting a tentative agreement recommended by their union.

Although locals in the other seven regions of the province accepted the agreement, members in Halifax have said the 6.5 per cent wage increase over three years is not enough to overcome mounting cost-of-living pressures. Unlike other regions, the Halifax local has few tradespeople, who were offered additional increases as part of the agreement.

Government officials have said CUPE came to the table with key demands, including wage parity across the province, and the tentative agreement delivered on that.

In her letter to CUPE officials, Kidney recommends the union reconsider "a deal that could have avoided the current situation." That would be for members of the Halifax local to do what the other seven regions do: have their work schedule align with the 10-month school year, making them eligible for federal employment insurance payments during school closure periods.

"Halifax CUPE members are paid on a salaried basis and therefore do not have the ability to apply for what I would reference as 'secondary earnings' from EI," Kidney writes.

CUPE Nova Scotia president Nan McFadgen confirmed talks are resuming on Friday but declined to comment on the government's position.

"We're coming to the table prepared to bargain and prepared to do the work on behalf of membership that brings them back to work," she said in an interview.

The strike by 1,800 members of Local 5047 kept many students out of school.

The strike meant approximately 600 students with disabilities who require educational programming assistants could not attend class. By using replacement workers and allowing parents into schools, a regional centre spokesperson said this week that 270 of those students are now back in class.

Parents of some of those students have said the situation is a violation of their children's human rights because it is preventing them from being able to get the education they would otherwise receive.

The strike has also shut down the region's pre-primary program, affecting about 3,000 children.

In an interview, Premier Tim Houston said he's hoping CUPE accepts the employment insurance offer so everyone can return to school. Kidney's email says the EI offer was been discussed several times with CUPE.

Houston accused "Halifax union elites" of withholding information from membership that would have resulted in "more money in their pockets."

"I'm just hopeful that, you know, they'll see that this never should have happened and it wouldn't have happened, I don't believe, if all the information would have been shared with the Halifax members."