‘High likelihood’ of bus driver strike next week, Winnipeg School Division warns

By | September 2, 2020

Parents of children in the Winnipeg School Division are being warned they will likely not be able to rely on school bus service on the first day of school.

The province’s largest school division has reached an impasse over salaries with the union representing its school bus drivers after weeks of negotiating, according to Chris Broughton, the chair of the Winnipeg School Division’s board of trustees.

The union that represents the division’s drivers has served notice that it will be in a legal strike position as of Sept. 8 — the same day students are set to go back to class.

“We believe there’s a high likelihood that there will be a strike,” Broughton said.

“We’re making an announcement so families have an opportunity to be prepared and to work with our schools to find an alternate arrangement to get their children to school.”

Bea Bruske, the secretary-treasurer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 — which represents 95 Winnipeg School Division bus drivers — says a strike will certainly happen if the school division doesn’t budge from its position.

“Our members are absolutely frustrated,” she said.

A strike could affect approximately 2,300 students, but service will continue for students who are transported by wheelchair-transportation services, according to a release from the school division.

Broughton says WSD has offered its drivers salaries that he believes are fair, and are within the division’s financial means.

“We understand that this is a struggle and we’re going to work very hard to accommodate families and give them the resources they need,” he said.

On Aug. 10, UFCW 832 said its members were meeting with the school division to negotiate a contract, but set a strike deadline of Sept. 8.

Bruske says the union later changed its position slightly to meet the school division in the middle, but the employer didn’t budge.

The current contract for the bus drivers expired on June 30. They’ve been bargaining with the school division since March.

Bruske said Wednesday the division has not yet made a fair offer, especially given the new duties drivers will have to take on to ensure kids are wearing their masks and physically distancing.

“What we’re concerned about is that you’ve now added an additional duty when we already have significant duties, and you’re not even willing to come to the table with a reasonable offer,” she said.

“At a time when the government is saying ‘thank you’ to front-line workers and saying, ‘we appreciate your service,’ [the school division] is not willing to come to the bargaining table.”

Bruske says the union’s real issue is with the school division using the provincial government’s Bill 28 to “interfere with meaningful bargaining.”

The legislation, introduced in 2017, mandated a two-year wage freeze for government employees once their existing contracts expired, followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.

The bill was never proclaimed in law and was therefore never technically in effect, but public-sector unions had argued negotiators acted as though it was.

In June, the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench struck down the bill, calling it “draconian.” The province has since said it will appeal the decision.

“We don’t think [the bill] is reasonable at a time when our bus drivers are being asked to take on more duties and responsibilities,” Bruske said.

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