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Letter: SDML non-teaching staff exasperated by delays in contract bargaining

To the Editor: To date, United Steelworkers Local 8223 and the School District of Mystery Lake (SDML) have met for negotiations a total of four times since their collective agreement expired in 2017.
Members of United Steelworkers Local 8223, which represents non-teaching support staff at the School
Members of United Steelworkers Local 8223, which represents non-teaching support staff at the School District of Mystery Lake, held a practice picket outside the district office on Thompson Drive July 21 as they seek a new contract to replace the one that expired in 2017.

To the Editor:

To date, United Steelworkers Local 8223 and the School District of Mystery Lake (SDML) have met for negotiations a total of four times since their collective agreement expired in 2017. 

How did we arrive here? Well, the catalyst for the turmoil began with the Progressive Conservative government’s mandate under Premier Brian Pallister. In 2017, the provincial government brought forward the Public Services Sustainability Act (Bill 28) which was to freeze the wages of over 120,000 Manitobans. These workers included teachers, nurses, hydro workers, government employees, school support staff and many other public sector workers. The mandate of this bill was to force these workers, who predominantly belonged to unions, into mandatory four-year collective agreements with wage increases in each year set at zero per cent, zero per cent, 0.75 per cent and 1 per cent, and that if any employer and union actually negotiated and exceeded this mandate the parties would be penalized with the employer not receiving their required operational funding. This effectively eliminated a fundamental right under Canadian law for workers and unions from negotiating their collective agreements.

The Pallister government knew this bill to be unconstitutional, therefore they only passed it through the required sessions in the legislature then halted its royal assent into law believing that if it was not law it could not be challenged yet it would still bear the threat upon employers and effectively suppress the workers’ wages and unions throughout the province, as it included a retroactivity clause to the date of introduction. Meaning that, even though it was not law, if it ever received royal assent it would be backdated to its introduction in 2017, thus maintaining its grip of fear of retribution on workers. 

Regardless, the unions in Manitoba under the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) banded together to challenge the bill even though it was not officially law and, to no one’s surprise, it was ruled that if Bill 28 was a law it would be unconstitutional. 

Throughout this period of time, across the province employers and unions made attempts to set bargaining dates with some going forward and some not. USW local 8223 and SDML had set dates in 2018 and 2019 yet were met with a delay at the Labour Board with the filing of an unfair labour practice that was to establish that the parties should meet and exchange their proposals at the same time, rather than the union providing their proposals to the employers and then the employer having the opportunity to review the union’s proposals and then crafting their response. Unfortunately, the board ruled in favour of the employer. 

This brings us to the recent meetings between the parties. With the union bargaining committee comprised of six members of the schools from various departments along with the local union president and USW District 3 staff representative and the employer’s bargaining committee comprised of a representative from Winnipeg belonging to the Manitoba School Board Association as their spokesperson, a superintendent, the secretary-treasurer and two Thompson school board trustees, the parties met in April and May of 2021. The USW 8223 bargaining committee provided the school district’s bargaining committee their non-monetary proposals and the parties began bargaining the language changes of what would hopefully become the new collective agreement between the parties. By the end of May the parties had basically come to agreement on the non-monetary language proposals within three formal meetings. Even with the employer and trustees cancelling negotiation dates and appearing uncommitted to the process (one trustee spending hours unengaged on their cell phone throughout bargaining sessions), the union bargaining committee was relieved that there was finally some progress being made for the members working in school district. That relief was short-lived. The union has made several attempts to canvass further dates to meet; to date all attempts have been unsuccessful and basically ignored. From members of the employer’s committee being on holidays or leave, to trustees being unavailable and not responding to the MSBA spokesperson when canvassed for dates, it is clear the employer has been deliberately avoiding meeting. To date, the union has reached out to the employer on June 1, June 10, June 23, June 24, June 25, June 30, July 18, July 29, Aug. 3, and Aug. 5 to set dates to meet. The union bargaining committee has offered to meet day or night, weekdays or weekends and at whatever time and convenience it would be to the employer.

The SDML school board is comprised of seven trustees – board chair Lindsay Anderson, vice-chair Guido Oliveira, Saima Aziz, Li Cripps, Don Macdonald, Michelle Tomashewski and Leslie Tucker. The union has requested that if the two members of the bargaining committee (Oliveira and Tucker) cannot meet or have schedule conflicts as they have not provided the MSBA spokesperson dates, then any of the remaining board members should attend as alternates. The union has reached out to some of the trustees to date for assistance in facilitating negotiation dates in hopes that their assistance will help the parties reach a fair agreement in a timely manner. 

With the employer not engaging for months and avoiding meetings, the membership at the school district has grown frustrated and upset with being disrespected by the employer. It’s one thing for the PC government and Pallister to slap workers in the face, it’s another for the employer to not simply scapegoat their duties but actually join the bandwagon. Keep in mind, these are the same people that want to lobby against the government and have union support to rally against Bill 64. On one hand, in opposition of Bill 64, these trustees want decisions for our school division to be made locally within our community for our community. Yet on the other hand they are telling the members that their hands are tied and are hiding behind the powers at be in Winnipeg to make the decisions. 

Our members can see what has taken place in other school divisions. They can see that teachers in Manitoba including the SDML teachers met, bargained and settled on the following wages with back pay: 2018/2019 1.6 per cent; 2019/2020 1.4 per cent, 2020/2021 0.5 per cent; 2021/2022 cost of living adjustment.

They can see that non-teaching staff at Frontier School Division (the same jobs and work as theirs) along with the teachers met, bargained and settled on the following wages with back pay: July 1, 2017 1.5per cent; Jan. 1, 2018 1.5 per cent, July 1, 2018 1.6 per cent, July 1, 2019 1.4 per cent, July 1, 2020 0.5 per cent; July 1, 2021 cost of living adjustment.

They can see that non-teaching staff at the Evergreen School Division (the same jobs and work as theirs) along with the teachers met, bargained and settled on the following wages with back pay: July 1, 2017 2 per cent; July 1, 2018 1.5 per cent; Jan. 1, 2019 1.5 per cent; July 1, 2019 1.6 per cent; July 1, 2020 1.4 per cent; July 1, 2021 0.5 per cent.

They can see that several school divisions have now gone against the government mandate and negotiated fair contracts with their respective employees, and yet SDML won’t even give them the common curtesy and respect to meet. 

With that, this membership has given the bargaining committee the right to take action if required. The union does not want this. The union has no desire to withdraw the memberships services and strike, however the employer and trustees are leaving very little choice for the union. These members care. As Thompsonites, they care about their jobs, they care about our schools, they care about our community, most importantly, they care about the families and children. This membership wants nothing more than to concentrate on the upcoming school year and continue to provide for our families and children. In order for us to do so we need the employer to come to the table and meet to reach a fair contract. 

Matt Winterton

USW District 3 Staff Representative

Flin Flon