Update: School workers to meet in Penticton ahead of possible strike

And the local teachers' union has also confirmed its members will honour any picket lines raised by support staff

Update: November 29, 213

The head of the local teachers’ union has confirmed her members won’t cross picket lines set up by school support staff.

A 72-hour strike notice was issued Thursday by the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 523, which represents workers like custodians and secretaries in three Okanagan school districts.

The dispute is related to CUPE members’ extended benefits and, if the next scheduled talks Monday break down, workers could go on strike as early as Wednesday.

“If there are picket lines, we would certainly respect them,” said Leslea Woodward, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union.

She said the Penticton-based Okanagan Skaha School District has not contacted her to discuss a potential strike, but “they know that teachers will not cross picket lines.”

Woodward expects that schools would be open, but not in session, in the event of job action.

“In the past, admin (personnel) has always shown up in case anybody does bring their child to school. It’s a safety thing,” she said.

CUPE Local 523 members are scheduled to meet Saturday in Penticton, according to a notice placed on the union’s website.

“It is important to attend this meeting and show your solidarity and support for each other and the bargaining committee,” the notice said.

Meanwhile, the board of the Okanagan Skaha School District issued a statement Friday to clarify claims made by CUPE.

The union said previously that a $15.3-million accumulated surplus indicated on the district’s latest audited financial statements shows it has money to spend on contract improvements, but that’s apparently not the case.

The surplus actually includes $13.9 million in capital assets and another $1.4 million that went back into district operations, the statement explained.

School board chairwoman Ginny Manning said in the statement the district was “surprised and disappointed” to learn the union served strike notice.

“We are concerned that the union is threatening strike action, and disruption to students, parents, and the normal operation of our schools, by mischaracterizing an employee benefits issue,” she said.

“We hope that the union will take a step back to engage in some sober second thoughts, recognize that the school district is being fair and consistent with the settlements for other CUPE employees in B.C.’s 60 public school districts, and return to the bargaining table to conclude an agreement.”

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Posted: November 28, 2013

Picket lines could be up at schools throughout the region as early as Tuesday morning.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees announced Thursday it had served 72-hour strike notice against the Okanagan Skaha, Okanagan Similkameen and North Okanagan school districts to protest an apparent breakdown in collective bargaining.

Rob Hewitt, a spokesman for the CUPE bargaining team, which represents support staff like custodians and secretaries, said the two sides are scheduled to meet for a final time on Monday.

If no deal is reached then, “we’re fully prepared to escalate up to and including a full withdrawal as soon as Tuesday morning,” Hewitt said.

Okanagan Skaha School District superintendent Wendy Hyer is optimistic the two sides will find a way to avoid  job action, which will begin with an overtime ban on Sunday.

“Calling a strike notice is part of the process of bargaining and we still have a full day of negotiations on Monday, and we’re hopeful we’ll avert a strike,” Hyer said.

CUPE reached an overarching deal with the B.C. government in September that gave members a 3.5 per cent wage increase over the two-year term of the agreement.

However, individual districts were left to come up with money for the pay hikes out of existing budgets and to negotiate collective agreements with their union locals.

Hewitt said support staff in the three Okanagan districts are all in the same local and fighting for improved benefits that will cost $65,000 a year. He said the union has also proposed the money come from savings the districts realized since they switched providers of long-term disability insurance in April.

“We’re not asking for any extra money,” said Hewitt. “We’re looking for savings.”

But the districts, he continued, have told the union the money has gone into general revenue and is needed to keep classrooms open.

Hyer said she was unable to respond to the union’s assertion because she was not at the bargaining table and the district does not negotiate through the media.

Hewitt also suggested “it’s just a philosophical issue” that’s keeping the districts from agreeing to the union’s proposal since all three are running healthy surpluses.

The latest set of audited financial statements for the Okanagan Skaha School District show a $15.4 million accumulated surplus from operations at the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

Hyer said more information would be coming forward late Thursday to explain that figure, but “I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of our budget situation.”

The agreement reached by CUPE and the B.C. government in September was negotiated under the collective gains mandate that stipulated any improvements to wages or benefits would need to be funded through savings found elsewhere in the system that do not impact service delivery.

Hyer estimated at the time the wage increases would cost her district $510,500 over two years and be funded by staff reductions through attrition and an “aggressive budget review.”