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The union that represents striking Winnipeg School Division bus drivers says the Pallister government’s meddling in its contract negotiations is unwarranted and could prolong the dispute.
Bea Bruske, secretary treasurer of Local 832 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said it was "quite surprising" and "really maddening" to learn that the government had directed the school division to offer no increase in wages to bus drivers for two years.
The directive came in the form of a letter, dated Sept. 3, from Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen and Finance Minister Scott Fielding to school division board chairman Chris Broughton and chief superintendent Pauline Clarke — just five days before classes were to begin. The union was copied on the letter.
The cabinet ministers said the school division's mandate "is to focus on a two-year horizon — directly related to the foreseeable COVID-19 environment — based on zero per cent salary and compensation increases for each of those two years."
"This would provide both (the school division) and (the union) with the opportunity to reassess the situation and resume bargaining following this two-year term, when there are less unknowns relative to overall budgetary pressures within the public sector," they wrote.
Bruske said the Progressive Conservatives have been demanding wage freezes for years as part of Bill 28, which, although never proclaimed into law, was struck down in June by the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench (the government is appealing the ruling). Now, they're using the pandemic to justify their actions, she said.
"It's an excuse, as far as we're concerned, and it's a poor one," Bruske said.
The drivers, who earn around $25 an hour, have been off the job since the start of the school year. Their collective agreement expired in June 2019.
In the past, more than 2,000 students in Winnipeg School Division rode the bus each day. This year, due to physical distancing requirements, less than half that number were set to take the bus.
In their letter, the ministers said their instruction to the school division is consistent with the approach the government has taken across the broader public sector. "While we would respectfully urge the parties to return to the bargaining table, we fully respect the fundamental union right to take strike action as part of the labour relations process."
Bruske said as things stand, the walkout could be a long one. No talks have been held since before the strike began.
"If you're serious about getting back to the bargaining table and reaching a collective agreement, then actually come with something that our workers will look at and take seriously...," she said. "And then maybe we can actually reach a deal."
Broughton of the school division could not be reached for comment.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said parents are unlikely to be impressed with the province's intervention in the bargaining process.
"If you're the average parent in the Winnipeg School Division who can't get your kid to school on a bus, you've got to be upset right now because your family was the collateral damage simply because this government stuck their noses into this bargaining process," he said.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
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