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February 6, 1999

School support staff set to strike

Caretakers, secretaries, may hit the bricks in union-school board showdown

  Don't ever call Rick McAloney a janitor.
 For 31 years McAloney has been monitoring boilers, clearing snow off sidewalks, keeping floors buffed, chasing strangers out of East York schools and counselling errant kids to stay on the straight and narrow.
 "A janitor is someone who cleans the floor," says McAloney, the $40,000-a-year head caretaker at Valley Park Middle School at Don Mills Rd. and Overlea Blvd. "A caretaker is what it says. We're in charge of taking care of the building. We're part of the team and the teaching staff treat us as part of the team."
 In the tumult of the last two years in education you haven't heard much from people like McAloney. While their union has not supported much of what the provincial government has done in education, they have stayed in the shadows during strikes over the last two years - legal or illegal - by teachers.
 Now it's their turn. Sid Ryan, Ontario boss for the Canadian Union of Public Employees says local union leaders representing public and Catholic school board support staff tell him they figure half the locals will hit the bricks by month's end.
 The reason? Most locals across the province are in heavy-duty contract talks with their school boards - the first under the province's new funding model.
 School boards say the news is not good. They say they're buckling under funding restrictions that give them less than they used to have to pay caretakers, secretaries and other support workers when trustees could turn to their local property tax base for cash.
 On the chopping block at the Toronto public school board starting next September are at least 2,100 positions - some 850 caretaking jobs, 1,000 in central administration, such as secretaries and clerical staff, 300 among school support staff and more in other job classifications.
 The board says it doesn't like the idea of contracting out some of those jobs, but it also doesn't rule it out.
 "I don't believe CUPE has come to the realization that there is no tax increase. What we've got is what we've got and we are at a loss to do anything about it," says Gail Nyberg, chairman of Toronto's public school board.
 All eyes are on Toronto right now, says Ryan. At 14,000 members, CUPE's Local 4400 represents the country's largest school board support worker unit.
 Last Wednesday, the union's executive requested a "no board report" from the labour ministry - a document which, once issued, would put the union in a legal strike position 16 days later.
 Nyberg calls the threat of a strike "folly and premature" but something that would make it "extremely difficult" to keep 576 schools open safely in the middle of winter.
 "(Trustees) understand, realize and recognize that tolerance for school strikes in this city is nil," she says. "I'm very fearful that (union members) are being led down the garden path by their union executive."
 CUPE workers say they have no choice but to walk if their demands are not met.
 "It's freaking me out - it's terrible," says Marianne Vanbeek, a single mom who gets a $20,000 salary for the 30 hours weekly she works as an educational assistant for learning disabled children.
 "I have to watch my cash at the best of times," says Vanbeek. "But I have to (strike) because I can't afford not to. We're not asking for the world here - we just want what's owed to us."
 What's "owed," say union bosses, is a "modest" salary increase - workers haven't had a raise for six to eight years - and protections against job loss due to contracting out.
 If Toronto workers walk, chances are good those at other boards with affirmative strike votes - such as Dufferin-Peel Catholic, and both York Catholic and public - will follow.
 "It would be to their advantage to have everybody on the picket line at the same time," says Ryan.
 And, unlike Nyberg, he believes the public would sympathize.
 "The average worker's wage is less than $26,000," he says. "I think (the public) will support these workers who are the lowest paid.
 "If that happens we are in a stronger bargaining position than we were before," Ryan continues. "It may force (Premier) Mike Harris to put more money into the system."
 If comments by parents contacted by the Sun are any indication, Ryan may be placing his bets right.
 "I think the parent support would be there to keep the support staff in the schools," says Anne Jacot, who has two children in North York public schools, some of which already employ contract caretakers at night.
 "We all know and see how hard the administrative staff work in the schools," says Jacot. "(And) very often the caretakers bring a safety factor to their job."
 Martha Harron, a Toronto mom and frequent critic of the Toronto public school board's spending habits, says it's hard to support cutting secretarial jobs when the board has not closed one of its seven central administrative offices following amalgamation.
 "Most of these people perform a very important function ... they are certainly not overpaid," she says, adding that the dedication of support staff is often "underappreciated."
 The board has said it could extend buyout offers of four weeks' pay for every year of service up to 78 weeks - the same deal already offered to superintendents.
 But the buyout is not nearly as financially attractive to someone with a $25,000 salary and 10 years experience as it has been for 45 superintendents who took the deal last summer at an average of $141,000, says McAloney, also a union vice-president with Local 4400.
 "What would I get? I have no choice, I have to work," says Sandra Childs, Valley Park's attendance secretary who is run off her feet daily checking up on absent students, dealing with anxious parents' calls and student records.
 Funding for the board's school operations - about 45% of which is caretaker salaries - is $273.3 million for this school year. That works out to about $5.98 a square foot, whereas the province only funds at $5.20. Toronto's Catholic board spends about $5.37 a square foot but Toronto public school trustees say they don't like the Catholic schools' upkeep standards.
 The board estimates that over the next three years it will lose $66 million out of that budget line, even with funding top-ups announced by the government in November.
 The provincial government, meanwhile, believes the board has received "sufficient funding" although it "may want to look at bringing costs down" through things such as attrition, says Rob Savage, the education ministry's spokesman.
 The school board was also let off the hook last year from paying its annual $20-million contribution into the support workers' pension plan, a situation brought on by the plan's large surplus. Those savings, suggests Savage, could be applied to buyouts as well.
 The consensus among union members, says McAloney, is that "the board is pushing us into" a strike situation, something Nyberg steadfastly denies.
 "From my point of view (the board and the government) are playing that game again" of blaming each other for financial woes, McAloney says in his small office with a window looking out to the school's portables. Then a knock comes on the door, followed by a small voice.
 "When I was coming down the stairs there was a bottle rolling around and I cracked it," says the student through the doorway.
 "Okay, we'll have someone there to take care of it," says McAloney.
 It's that kind of service that McAloney doubts will be given if contract workers are brought in to perform specific tasks, perhaps at several schools, without responsibility for the school's general operation.
 "I'm not a flag-waving, Solidarity Forever-singing unionist," he says. "All I'm doing is trying to live within a collective agreement, and for my pay try to give them the best service I can - this board and this government are going to make it worse.
 "I hope in my heart of hearts that we're not going to have to go out and that we'll get an agreement."

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