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Public health precautions were expected to limit school transportation options this fall, but now the union that represents school bus drivers in central Winnipeg is warning bargaining woes could stop busses from running altogether.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832, which represents 95 bus drivers in the Winnipeg School Division, said Monday it has turned down the division’s "final offer", following months of contract negotiations.
Bus drivers in the province’s largest division have been without a contract since July 30, 2019.
"We’re actively preparing for a picket line on September the 8th," said Bea Bruske, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 823, Monday.
Bruske said the latest offer contains financial terms of Bill 28, legislation that attempted to force a two-year wage freeze on public sector unions and was thrown out by the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in June.
The proposed compensation — a wage freeze for 2019-2021, a 0.75 per cent increase in 2022 and a one per cent increase in 2023 — is the "driving factor" for members’ refusal, Bruske said, adding other items on the negotiation table include vacation time and how extra work is allocated.
The union has three days of bargaining booked with the employer at the end of August. If the division does not adjust its position, Bruske said, parents will not be able to rely on bus service when schools reopen in the fall.
Drivers in the division voted unanimously to strike back in March, saying the employer was not engaging in "meaningful bargaining."
Radean Carter, a senior information officer at the WSD, declined to comment on specific matters Monday.
"Winnipeg School Division will continue to bargain in good faith with the union involved and hope for a positive outcome for our students," Carter said.
Province-wide, parents have expressed concerns about limited seats on school buses in the fall, as a result of public health precautions.
Manitoba Education has asked parents to transport their children to school next year, if possible, and detailed physical distancing guidelines on school buses.
Both Louis Riel and Pembina Trails school divisions have asked their respective communities about whether they would support temporarily cutting bus service to kindergarten students and extending minimum walk zones next year to free up space.
The latest update from Pembina Trails is that the division will not be able to accommodate "seat sales" — spots provided to students outside bus catchment zones with school transportation for an annual fee — during the upcoming school year.
Meantime, in the Evergreen School Division, bus driver Karen Crotty is eager to get back to work.
"It’s time … I'm ready to get back on the school bus. Regular, enhanced cleaning is inevitable and doable," said Crotty, who works in the division based in Gimli.
"I understand the panic regarding going back to school, but should we not be trying to have our children get back to a routine, learning, interacting and socializing?"
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.
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