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Tentative deal for support workers heads off school strike

A contract agreement between public school employees and the province means students will continue to head to schools such as Renfrew Elementary School, as they did on the first day of school in Vancouver on Sept. 3, 2013.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

A looming job action by 33,000 unionized school support staff in British Columbia has been averted with a tentative two-year contract.

The BC Public School Employers' Association and CUPE BC, which represents 27,000 of the workers, say a 3.5-per-cent wage increase has been negotiated over the life of the deal. It includes a 1-per-cent boost retroactive to July 1, a 2-per-cent increase on Feb. 1, 2014, and a final hike of half a per cent next May.

Schools in some parts of the province were bracing for a strike that could have occurred as early as Monday amid fears that teachers would refuse to cross picket lines. The agreement was signed just before midnight Wednesday.

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Education Minister Peter Fassbender said Thursday that the negotiations were not easy.

"There is still a lot of work ahead," he said in a statement. "School districts will need to develop savings plans to pay for the agreement and 69 different union locals will seek approval from their members before final ratifications. We expect the ratification process will move more quickly in some districts than in others."

Both sides must still ratify the tentative pact, with voting dates to be announced.

The union's kindergarten to Grade 12 Presidents' Council agreed on Thursday afternoon to recommend the agreement.

The public school employees, including education assistants, clerical staff, trades workers and bus drivers, have been without a contract for more than a year.

Members in 57 of the bargaining units belong to CUPE, and the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 963, represents the 12 other locals, which include people who work in trades.

Bill Pegler, CUPE's kindergarten to Grade 12 co-ordinator, said the union fought to have concessions removed from the bargaining table since it began bargaining last November. It also asked for a wage hike of 4 per cent in line with the pattern established by other public-sector settlements in the postsecondary sector, Mr. Pegler said.

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"What we ended up with was slightly less, and that's what our presidents are studying today," he said.

The contract for the deal, which expires in June, 2014, must be ratified by the end of December. The union will start negotiating again in the spring, Mr. Pegler said.

Negotiations between the teachers' union and the government's bargaining agent have been on hold pending a court case. The B.C. Teachers Federation has taken the government to court seeking damages over its decision to strip the teachers' contract in 2002, a move the Supreme Court of Canada ruled was unconstitutional.

Bargaining is expected to resume in October.

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