Citing budget restraints amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the province has asked school boards to participate in an "all-hands-on-deck" approach across the public sector to minimize the deficit by negotiating a two-year wage freeze with non-teaching staff.
On Thursday, the Manitoba PC caucus published a letter outlining a new bargaining mandate for boards who negotiate with approximately 80 unions which represent educational assistants, custodians, bus drivers and other school employees across the province.
The letter, signed by Education Minister Cliff Cullen and Finance Minister Scott Fielding, was sent to school board chairs and superintendents, with employee bargaining agents copied, earlier this week.
The province has proposed divisions negotiate new "four-year renewal cycle" agreements, consisting of a wage freeze for the first two years, followed by a 0.75 per cent bump, and a one per cent increase in the final year.
The terms mirror the contents of Bill 28, legislation that sought to freeze public-sector worker wages, which was struck down in a court last year. The Pallister government is currently appealing the ruling.
"The surrounding context is critical," states the letter, "On behalf of all Manitobans, government continues to address the unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic."
The letter also states the mandate should assist with ongoing budgetary processes in school divisions and enable additional transition planning, as part of the newly-announced education reforms.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew questioned the timing of the letter — amidst a pandemic during which support staff have stepped up to both keep schools safe and struggling students learning — during a scrum Thursday.
"To me, it shows that what Bill 64 and this education reform is going to be all about is just cutting costs, not actually helping kids in the classroom," Kinew told reporters at the Manitoba legislature.
A spokeswoman for bus drivers in the Winnipeg School Division echoed those sentiments.
"We’re not impressed," said Bea Bruske, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 832, which represents nearly 100 drivers.
Given the terms are the same as Bill 28 — terms bus drivers fought during a strike earlier in the school year, Bruske said the province is using the pandemic as an excuse to "ram (them) through."
It remains unclear what exactly the bargaining process will look like for non-teaching employees when English boards are replaced with a centralized education authority in summer 2022. The Manitoba Teachers' Society will represent all teachers in collective bargaining with the province when that happens.
"There's more questions than answers and I think doing this during a pandemic is completely reckless and it’s not taking the needs of the students and parents and workers, quite frankly, into consideration at all," Bruske added.
MTS president James Bedford said in a statement Thursday the latest mandate letter amounts to further "government interference and intimidation."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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.