Striking school support workers had a chance to speak with Premier Tim Houston and MLA Tim Halman face to face when they showed up Halman’s office on Tuesday.

“With all due respect, you’re not rewriting history. You’re putting us back to the past decade,” Beverley Slaunwhite, an educational program assistant (EPA), said to Houston when he arrived with Halman.

“We are at the table,” Houston told the workers as cars drove past with drivers honking their horns in support. “We were at the table on Saturday. We would have been at the table Sunday. I believe in the collective bargaining process.”

“The negotiations are ongoing,” said Halman, who once worked as a teacher.

School support workers, including EPAs, library specialists, early childhood educators, assistive technology support workers, Mi’kmaw and Indigenous student support workers, African Nova Scotian school support workers, and community outreach workers have been on strike since May 10 when they rejected a tentative deal from their union.

‘Bad on so many levels’

As the Examiner reported on Thursday, the workers’ union was headed back to the bargaining table on Friday.

On Thursday, Michael Gorman with CBC reported that they obtained an email from Angela Kidney, the executive director of labour relations with the province, who wrote that there would be no “‘new’ money in any form to end this job action.”

In that letter, Kidney suggested that workers with the Halifax local rework their schedules to 10 months, so they can apply for employment insurance when school is not in session. School support workers in the province’s seven other regions work on 10-month contracts.

The Examiner reached out to CUPE 5047 on Tuesday and Natalee Boulanger, a representative from the workers’ strike committee, said talks continue. In an email, a CUPE 5047 representative told the Examiner the suggestion of turning to employment insurance when school isn’t in session “would be bad on so many levels.”

We fought years ago hard for salaried smooth bank pay.  We work 10 months but our salary is spread over 12. This would be horrible for our members who have 2nd and 3 jobs, most likely they wouldn’t qualify for EI, not to mention the waiting periods, most would be heading back to work before they would even see their first EI payment! 

Two white men stand on a sidewalk speaking with a white woman in a floral ball cap, black t-shirt, and holding a sign that says "CUPE 5047 Day 26."
School support worker Beverly Slaunwhite speaks with Premier Tim Houston and MLA Tim Halman outside of Halman’s constituency office in Dartmouth. Credit: Suzanne Rent

‘I do this because I care’

In an interview with the Examiner after she spoke with Houston, Slaunwhite said she works as an EPA because the job “fills her soul.”

“It’s my passion. I will do this until I am 90,” Slaunwhite said. “I do this because I care.”

Slaunwhite, who earlier pointed out to Houston that most of the striking workers are women, said this strike was about “oppression.”

“You look around and we are a majority workforce of women. If we were firefighters, or bus drivers, or a majority of men, things would be different. I work with women who have three jobs. Single moms with young children and they make not even $750 every two weeks.”

“I do things, and all of us do things, in our day that none of these politicians would ever do.”

Two white woman, one in a black patterned short dress and the other in a black top and denim shorts, stand on a sidewalk on a sunny day. Both women are holding pink flags that says CUPE, Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Sherri LeBlanc, left, and Melissa Brown outside MLA Tim Halman’s constituency office in Dartmouth. Credit: Suzanne Rent

Stephanie Knoll is another EPA who joined the group.

“We thought we would be very visible on this corner,” Knoll said before Houston arrived. “We heard there might be an open house question period and we thought we definitely want our voice heard.”

Knoll works at Waverley Memorial with elementary school students. She said workers want to get back to the classrooms and students are “100% being hurt by this process.”

“We believe these children deserve support workers who are paid a living wage,” Knoll said. “They are important enough and these positions are important enough and valuable enough for society, for families, and for education, that this position deserves a living wage. These children deserve that and these workers deserve that.”

“I genuinely hope our elected government can realize that their voters want this solved and want this solved fairly.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Highway workers in NS (employed by the province) with no special education or experience earn $20-$30/hr. Not exclusively, but predominantly… men. EPA’s and others, again not exclusively but predominantly women, many of whom have years of experience with children with disabilities (sometimes their own) and many with some, or much, post secondary education, including degrees, are paid $15-$20 /hr.?? Other than hating women and thinking that they do not deserve a living wage – how do the Premier and MInister square this? I am not looking to reduce the wages of highway workers and it is good that most of them make a living wage – and for historic reasons up until the 80’s a lot of male dominant occupations made more than female dominated professions – but I thought we had seen the light, and would catch up. 40 years later… Apparently not. Sexism and racism (support workers for Indigenous and African N.S. students are also on strike) still running rampant in Nova Scotia including in the government. If this is not solved (by improving wages!) before the summer then those 600 kids may have no experienced support workers come fall. There are lots of jobs available with less stress and better hours and pay… and treated so disrespectfully… you may love the work but at a certain point you will just go do something else… I despair.

  2. I’m curious what other public sector professions pay Halifax workers more than the rest of the province? Having a daughter who lives in rural Nova Scotia, I can assure you the lower cost of housing is offset by the cost of food (no Costco, etc) and increased use of gas.

  3. Thanks for your coverage of this. I’m still not clear on the sticking point issues compared to others that have accepted their contracts. A summary of those would be helpful.

  4. I have no idea how CUPE leadership allowed it to come to this. But herewith a few points I’d like to see followed up by reporters.
    1. Because wage parity was sought and granted in the negotiations workers outside HRM who were previously being paid less than HRM workers would be getting a larger raise through the 6.5 over three years than would workers in HRM. That may explain why those local supported the deal.
    2. Taxpayers in HRM pay an additional education levy, amounting to about $15 million a year. Before boards were done away with, some of that special levy went to student support programming (special education). It’s now earmarked mostly for arts programming.This may explain why the urban-rural disparity came about in the first place.
    3. As the Examiner has pointed out, Nova Scotia wages for educational assistants are the lowest in Canada. That should have been addressed. Instead, the government insists on imposing its draconian wage pattern on these poorly paid workers.
    4. The government has already set a precedent for addressing low wages outside of its desired wage pattern with its bonuses for nurses and CCAs.

  5. Still trying to understand why the reasons why this particular group deserves to be paid more than other people in the province doing the same work. If it is different then make the case but it seems the “brilliant leadership of CUPE ” strategy in this one was wrong and now the workers pay. Where is the union dues going to pay for 1,800 workers per month that is quite a bit of $$.Where is the “strike pay”

    1. Hi Terry, same thing happened with the CUPE healthcare contract. Fact of the matter is that if I live and work in Truro, my wage is going further than the same wage in Halifax. The contracts should reflect the big disparity between Toronto-high rents/etc in Halifax and everywhere else.

  6. The economy comes before people. What that means is wealth accumulation by the few trumps fair wages and a decent living for the many.

  7. Workers deserve to be paid appropriately, to those who do comparable work in other parts of Nova Scotia, and elsewhere.

    Talking to anyone, with your phone recording two feet from their face, is not a great way to build a bridge.