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Editorial: Strike an extra complication in unusual return to school

Back to school 2021 was never going to be easy.
United Steelworkers Local 8223 members picked outside the School District of Mystery Lake office on
United Steelworkers Local 8223 members picket outside the School District of Mystery Lake office on the first day of their strike Aug. 30.

Back to school 2021 was never going to be easy. As difficult as it is to get back into a routine after a summer without classes and homework for students, or lesson planning and marking for teachers, it’s even more so when the last two years have been so topsy-turvy due to COVID-19 that no one even remembers what the old normal was and the new normal is being made up as we go along.

What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, though it is in one of its more dormant periods. The virus is still circulating. The Delta variant is making the past a less-than-helpful predictor of the future because of its easier transmission. There are young students who never really had a chance to get used to being in class everyday and, at elementary schools, there are large numbers of students who haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated because of their age. As is the case with so many things since COVID-19 arrived on Canadian shores and then in Manitoba about 18 months ago, the number of moving parts involved in opening up and operating a school without creating unnecessary risk for workers and students is enough to leave anyone feeling overwhelmed.

Hell, there’s even the prospect of Bill 64 still lurking in the background, though many of those angling to replace Premier Brian Pallister, who stepped down from his duties at 8:01 a.m. this morning, are saying that they plan not to move forward with the controversial legislation.

Basically, if ever there was a school year when a strike by employees was really something that no one wanted added to the mix it was this one. It’s never easy to make up for missing a whole chunk of a school district’s workforce – it’s not exactly like there are a lot of people involved in the system just sitting around with nothing to do – but it’s even tougher when pandemic protocols are already creating extra work even with a full employee complement.

Included among those who didn’t want a strike are the School District of Mystery Lake’s support staff who withdrew their services on Monday morning. If they had seen a better alternative, they would have been tempted to take it. Unfortunately, after four years without a contract and no prospect of one being concluded anytime soon, they felt they had to use the last and biggest bargaining chip in their toolkit.

How long have member of United Steelworkers Local 8223 been without a contract? Well, Donald Trump was still in the first full year of his presidency, Justin Trudeau was about midway through his first stint as prime minister and Pallister’s Progressive Conservative party had just celebrated their first anniversary as Manitoba’s government. Trump has now been out of office for more than six months, Trudeau is seeking a third term for the Liberals as Canada’s federal government and Pallister, as mentioned before, is about to be replaced by a new interim premier and then a more permanent one.

If the school district and the support staff union were to sign a new collective agreement today, one that covers four years, they would immediately be right back to bargaining for the next one. Although the issue is about what the workers will be paid going forward, it is also about what they will be paid retroactively, at least in theory. To say that some serious effort on behalf of their employer is overdue is a pretty big understatement. Saying that no one saw this coming wold not be true, especially since the union foreshadowed the possibility of a service interruption back when the bargaining committee asked for a strike mandate in June. Everyone involved could see this coming for at least the last two months and yet, little seems to have been done to avert what has come to pass.

It’s unfortunate that inevitable disruptions will affect what was already going to be an unusual back to school season. Hopefully, seeing what not having support staff’s services is like will inject some urgency into the bargaining process so that they can get back to doing their jobs and students can adjust to whatever normal is going to look like this year.