It’s Day 5 of a strike by educational program assistants at schools in the Halifax region. 

That means students with disabilities who rely on the support of these workers are not attending school and not receiving an education. Several of these students arrived at a picket line in Fall River Tuesday to show their support for the striking adult workers who usually support them.

CUPE Local 5047 represents roughly 1,800 school support workers including Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) who operate a pre-primary program for four-year-olds, library specialists, and support workers for Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian students. 

Because the early childhood workers are on the picket line, working parents are having to make other arrangements for four-year-olds not attending pre-primary. 

The province has offered school support workers a 6.5% raise over three years. The median wage for an educational program assistant in Nova Scotia is $18.00 an hour, according to a federal labour force survey in 2021. 

The province did reach a tentative agreement with school support workers in the rest of the province. But in the urban area of the Halifax Regional Municipality — where rents are soaring and “a living wage” is $23.00 an hour — workers rejected that offer and are on strike to obtain a better one.

“Our members were clear that this offer does not address their needs,” said CUPE 5047 President Chris Melanson. 

Most educational program assistants earn less than $35,000 a year. Negotiations between the CUPE local representing workers in Halifax and the government have yet to resume.

Four white woman stand on a sidewalk holding handmade signs that say, "We deserve a living wage," "We deserve respect," "Honk to support CUPE 5047," and "Fair deal now."
Support workers on the picket line in Fall River. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

No bonus for cleaners

CUPE Local 2761 represents cleaners at the QEII Health Care Centre. They worked some long days during the pandemic. 

Following the Houston government’s March 20 announcement of a “thank you” bonus aimed at retaining nurses as well as other health care workers, full-time cleaners at the Halifax Infirmary and Victoria General hospitals were told they don’t qualify for the “up to $5,000” bonus provided to housekeeping staff at other hospitals.

According to a news release from CUPE today, the reason is because:

Nova Scotia Health contracted out their positions to Crothall, a private company…the government is using that loophole to exclude these workers from the thank-you bonus, arguing they are not publicly funded.

Nova Scotia Health has contradicted its own argument, however, by granting the thank-you bonus to other health care workers employed by private facilities. Health care workers employed by private long term care facilities, for example, received the bonus.

In addition to cleaning staff at nursing homes, CUPE says housekeeping staff at the IWK Children’s and Women’s Health Centre also received the thank you bonus. That’s even though they worked for a private company until last February when they became employees of Nova Scotia Health.

“The Houston government shouldn’t be picking and choosing which public health care workers get the thank-you bonuses,” said CUPE Nova Scotia President Nan McFadgen. “If they work at a publicly funded hospital, performing the same duties as other workers employed directly by Nova Scotia Health, they should be included. It’s shameful that the cleaners working in the QEII were excluded in the first place.”

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. I am sad to see very little information in the news about the strike. Tim Houston doesn’t feel support workers, especially ECE’s and EPA’s deserve to make enough to live on. Those of us that have gone on strike are fighting for wages but it is not as simple as a median wage. We work for 10 months a year and our pay is stretched out for 12 months, consider what we pay for our medical benefits which increased by over 3% this year, taxes etc. Then factor in the cost of living soaring and we are left with very little if that. We do not get EI over summer and many of us are living in poverty. I for one do not take home enough to pay rent anywhere in the city, so instead I continue live in public housing, just as I did when I worked minimum wage jobs many years ago. We all go above and beyond our duty each and every day to support not only students with special needs but an entire school community. EPA’s play many roles that are not part of our job description. We are neighbors, friends, trusted adults, tutors, community outreach support, translators, referees, and teachers assistants just to name a few. We are not given an opportunity to improve our wages with education or training. Many of us come to the job with years of previous experience in a variety of fields and we all start at the same wage, then are capped after just 5 years. We are completely undervalued and unrecognized by Tim Houston and he certainly does not value the most vulnerable children that rely on us each and every day.

  2. Simple fix for the HI and VG cleaners – the government should take them back as NS Health workers as they used to be. Pay them the bonus put them in the pension plan, give them the benefits, the pay, and the security they deserve.

  3. Need some clarification here – this group is now paid the same as others in the province doing the same job (fairness); they had been previously paid higher than the others in the province doing the same job (not fairness). The use of the student in this dispute is highly offensive, this tactic and the reporting of the same should be discontinued. Maybe their focus should be on their leadership who negotiated the deal and the majority of their co-workers across the province who accepted it! Is the issue that the wages are not adequate for everyone in the province or is this group upset that they NO longer are paid higher than the rest of the province. Maybe there needs to be more investigation into the reasons not the shameless use of students as props in the dispute.

    1. The issue is that we are not paid enough to live on. I am an EPA currently on strike and I take home about $700 biweekly. So $1400/month. Current rents in Halifax are about $2000. Depending on where in the city you live that price can be for a bachelor apartment, or a 2 bedroom depending on how far from downtown you go like Sackville, etc. (Harbour View Apartments, also known as Brunswick towers) just off of Brunswick st in the North End charge $2005./month for a bachelor apartment up to just over $2800 for a 3 bedroom. These are old bulldings with a long list of problems, not fancy new condos. I am a single Mom and if I were to leave my job and collect income assistance (welfare) I could make about half of what my monthly pay is. If I had multiple children my child tax credit would be higher then I could stay home collect a check every month and make more than I make working now. The reason the others accepted is not just about wage parity but that their trades people were offered over a $2/hr pay raise. Their bus drivers and custodians are part of the union but are separate in
      Halifax. My pay raise would have equaled about .20 cents/hr. I believe the cost of living in Halifax had always been higher which is why there was a difference in wages. I do not know the cost of living in the valley but I do know that I should be able to afford an apartment, food and clothes for my child. Not have to pick and choose. Think about a $1400/month pay minus rent, food, power, transportation, etc. How is that fair? Our children shouldn’t have to live in poverty while we provide support for other families and the most vulnerable children in schools.