To mark the fourth full week since HRM’s school support workers went on strike, members of their union called on the provincial government to join them at the bargaining table.

“We’re hearing words from the premier and the minister of education that members should go back and talk to their union. Essentially bargaining is two people at the table,” Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Nova Scotia president Nan McFadgen said in an interview Wednesday morning. 

“And if we could resolve this by talking to ourselves at the table, I promise you we would. We wouldn’t be on a picket and they’d be already making a living wage. We can’t talk to our union to bargain, we need to talk to the employer.”

McFadgen was at Dartmouth’s Main Street Park near Woodlawn High School for an NDP press conference in support of CUPE 5047. That union represents the 1,800 Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) educational program assistants (EPAs), support workers, and pre-primary teachers who went on strike May 10.

“During COVID, these are the workers who they needed to come in. It was, ‘We need to support these children who have extraordinary needs. We can’t do that without them,’” McFadgen said. 

“So, they went to work, and their children couldn’t wear masks, and this was before a vaccine. They were so very important then. So, why aren’t they still important now? What has shifted in that value?”

‘Please see us’

As passing drivers honked in solidarity and striking school support workers whooped and waved their signs in appreciation, ECE Joanne Dileo expressed how much she missed her students. She hopes to be back in the classroom before the school year is over.

“My biggest concern about not going back to the classroom (before the school year ends) is not being there to support my kiddoes before they go off to (grade) Primary,” the ECE from Brookhouse Elementary School said in an interview.

“The guilt that we do feel for not being in the classroom, it is immense. But it’s important that we are out here.”

Her message to the premier was repeated several times: “Please see us. Please see what we do.” 

“We’re not compensated enough for what we do. We really are not valued for that,” Dileo said.

NDP leader Claudia Chender said the fact hundreds of children with disabilities haven’t been able to attend school for four full weeks is “unconscionable.” 

“Inclusion Nova Scotia has made that plain,” Chender said in an interview.

On Tuesday, as reported here, Inclusion NS called the ongoing exclusion from school of students with disabilities a human rights violation.

Chender said it’s also a direct violation of HRCE’s inclusive education policy. 

“The only solution in our minds, and the reason we’re here today, is to say the government needs to come back to the table and make sure that these workers earn enough to support their families so that they can support our families,” Chender said, adding that the premier “holds the levers” to return to the table.

“The reality is it’s an unsustainable situation. You can’t have a workforce which is so important, which is so critical to the development of children, who are so undervalued and so underpaid.”

‘These workers will be gone’

Chender said what she’s hearing from families most affected by the strike is overwhelming support for the workers. 

Some striking workers and the families of children with disabilities have expressed concern this strike might continue when the school year ends. Chender said if the province was trying to make workers “wait it out,” it would be an “extremely dangerous” move.

Aside from the human dimension of their struggle for better pay, Chender said there are economic and logistical challenges for government. She points to the current labour shortage in early childhood education.

She said most school support workers already have second jobs because they can’t survive on what they’re making now. 

“Many of them who I have spoken to have received job offers. And so if this government waits, these workers will be gone,” Chender said. 

“It will cause a huge and extraordinarily expensive and difficult to solve challenge for this government because come fall, they will not have the workers they need. So, if that’s their strategy, it’s an enormous mistake.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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