Seine River custodians vote on tentative deal

School custodians in St. Norbert and surrounding communities are voting on a tentative deal that would end a two-week long strike.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union announced Wednesday afternoon that Local 143 representatives had reached a tentative agreement with their employer.

The results of the vote are anticipated to be released late Tuesday.

The job action, which entered its third week on Monday, has renewed calls to ban replacement workers in Manitoba.

Janitors and maintenance staff set up a picket line outside the Seine River School Division’s headquarters in Lorette on Feb. 12 in protest of their employer’s wage proposal.

One day earlier, in a letter alerting all employees about the bargaining impasse, administration announced it had contracted Express Employment Professionals to find daytime and evening workers to clean schools during the then-imminent disruption.

The use of temporary workers “sours” the bargaining process and “inflames” staff, said MGEU president Kyle Ross.

“It makes your members angry. It makes it harder to get them back in. It makes it harder to accept a contract,” said Ross, who represents the 47 school support staff in Seine River who have been working with an expired contract since July 2021.

Since the strike began in Seine River, MGEU indicated it has received reports of replacement workers’ hourly wages being higher than those of its members, and of an elementary school being left open accidentally during the long weekend.

Superintendent Ryan Anderson noted the division is paying outside agencies through fee-for-service contracts and did not disclose how much the stand-in staff are earning.

In an email, Anderson provided vague details about a discovery that Parc La Salle School was unlocked.

“Had there been any activity at the school of any kind, the maintenance coordinator would have been notified and further action would have been taken as needed,” he added.

There have been four MGEU local strikes since the summer and during all but one of them, employers have hired replacement workers.

Labour researcher Adam King said ending temporary hires during bargaining disputes is an important step to address an imbalance in union-employer relations across Manitoba and Canada.

“We have very low levels of strikes now compared to several decades ago and that’s not a sign of peaceful labour relations – it’s a sign that workers’ bargaining power has been seriously undermined,” said the assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.

King said the current set-up undermines workers’ last-resort leverage in bargaining and research shows it disproportionately affects low-wage and racialized workers.

The academic co-wrote a letter to the province with colleagues to lobby for a ban on behalf of their faculty association.

The NDP government is currently undertaking consultations to draft legislation to ban the use of replacement staff during walkouts. Legislative changes could be tabled as early as the spring session.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press