The striking employees of the South East Cornerstone Public School Division will be back at their respective jobs this morning (Wednesday).
The employees, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU-West) voted in favour of accepting Cornerstone’s latest offer that gives them a 4.5 per cent wage increase over two years.
The 260 striking members had rejected a previous four per cent offer over the same time period with 58 per cent voting against that proposal.
The SEIU employees voted overwhelmingly for strike action that began April 22 with picket lines set up near the affected schools and Cornerstone’s head office in Weyburn.
Those pickets were taken down following the vote count that was made known to them on May 11.
The deal, that remains tentative until it is signed by both parties, includes a 4.5 per cent wage increase with 2.5 per cent being implemented in the first year and a further two per cent the following year. There were no other changes to previous offers.
“Though the board didn’t move as far as we would have liked, we’ve made some headway in our relationship and have managed to get a deal our members can live with,” said Barbara Cape, president of SEIU-West. “I’m sure the students will be excited to see their support workers back in class and around the school.”
The employees who were involved in the strike action included education assistants, bus drivers, library technicians, custodians, maintenance personnel, administrative assistants and kitchen and cafeteria staff members.
Maureen Jackiw, chairwoman of the SEIU-West bargaining team said, “Though this isn’t everything we were hoping for, it is a step in the right direction.”
When asked during a conference call, if an extra one-half percent added to the package was worth the 19 or 20 days of strike time and picket duty, Cape said the activity and process taken was, “not just a wage increase issue, but also about respect. This was about hands-on education and the people who really keep our schools moving, keep our schools open. So, it’s not just about money.”
SEIU-West members issued a further statement that thanked the communities they served for their support while they were engaged in the strike. This support included visits on the picket lines, barbecues, honking horns from passing motorists and supporting letters to editors and e-mails.
The strike involved employees in schools in Estevan and Weyburn and 14 other smaller communities.
Cape revealed that 71 per cent of the SEIU-West members voted in favour of accepting the latest offer and the turnout was, “more than what was expected. We had central voting stations and some had to travel a distance to cast a vote.”
The negotiations between the two parties broke down in the early stages this spring which prompted an agreement to assign a government appointed conciliator to help with the process. After about a week of further discussions that involved the conciliator, the two negotiating committees were still left without an agreement and a withdrawal of services by the conciliator. With the strike then called, the conciliator, Jim Jefferies, was drawn back into the process as the two parties once again agreed to give it another try. After one false start and a rejection vote of 58 per cent on a proposed three per cent and one per cent over a two-year deal, the current offer arose following a few more days of talks which resulted in the latest offer and acceptance. This ended the strike that had been ongoing for nearly three full weeks.
SEIU-West, as well as, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents non-teaching employees in Cornerstone. CUPE members accepted a four per cent over two years wage increase offer in the latter part of 2014, but SEIU-West spokepersons noted, in their defence, that the previous CUPE agreements had included more enhanced benefits and subsidiary items compared with the SEIU-West contract.
Lynn Little, Cornerstone’s director of education, said ratification of the agreement is expected to be signed within the next few days and in the meantime, “we’re welcoming them back and we thank parents, students and staff for understanding and taking on the additional tasks, especially during the busy farm seeding season, and we know things will run smoother now that these employees are back.”
Little said the physical conditions of the schools in question were not a major influence on the negotiations since temporary alternative measures were taken to ensure the health and safety of the students.
“We’re pleased with the resolution, ratification is expected, we’re very happy to have them back,” Little said.