ATA News

Alberta failing to live up to its social contract

Jorge Illanes

President, CUPE Local 3550

Consistent funding cuts and the provincial government’s inability to understand that they are not putting enough money into public education have forced school boards to make difficult decisions. These decisions include placing many education support staff workers on layoff and recall, and cutting programs intended to support students with special needs. 

This lack of funding is seeing more and more employees, some with over 10 years of experience, having to leave their jobs. Some support staff have to juggle three to four jobs to survive the effects of inflation on their households. 

The lack of sustainable funding is not allowing schools to create the permanent jobs that are needed, or to fill the temporary short- and long-term supply jobs that remain unfilled. 

This is forcing schools to make difficult decisions. We have had consistent issues with volunteers being recruited to do the work of support staff, support staff being reclassified so they’re doing the same work for lower pay, the lowering of full-time equivalencies of support staff, employees being unable to take sick time due to lack of coverage, and staff being overworked and stressed. A member put it to me this way: “We are moved around and treated like ping-pong balls.” 

Another member told me, “We are tired, feel underappreciated and we want change. It is difficult to do all the duties expected of me and pick up the support staff hours that are cut —the work has not reduced. I am by myself, and I haven’t said anything as I don’t want to appear ungrateful, as I do appreciate the majority of my job. I am, however, losing my spark to go in every day and starting to feel burnt out.”

What is becoming clearer is that the erosion of services is causing great suffering, not just for our members, but for students and their families. 

School boards keep asking support staff to be the ones to continue sacrificing, but what Albertans need to understand is that it’s the students’ learning that is being sacrificed. If schools could get funding, I’m sure we would see increased full-time work by our members. Sustainable funding helps in solving these constraints on the learning rights of our students.

The work we do as support staff has for many years been underfunded. CUPE determined that educational assistants earn $27,500 per year. Decent wages are very crucial for recruitment and retention. 

Low wages, layoffs and difficult working conditions are driving people away from the beautiful work that we do. This directly impacts the availability of support staff to provide the services that students should be guaranteed to have, as a right, to be successful in their education. 

We see good, strong collective agreements as fundamental in stabilizing the support staff shortage and providing school boards with the rationale needed to demand sustainable funding from the government.

Our hope is that this government does not interfere with but rather creates the conditions for education support staff workers to bargain for fair wages and working conditions. The government needs to increase funding to the national average and rescind the Public Sector Employers Act. 

Our members are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. We take inspiration from what happened with education support workers in Ontario, and the recent decision to strike by Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers. We are speaking to other bargaining locals, and hopefully these conversations will unite us to demand better. The desire to take job action is growing.

Conversations with other unions and public interest groups have provided support and the expression of similar concerns around education in Alberta. Most, if not all, concern centres around problems created through a senseless lack of funding from a provincial government boasting about surpluses. 

We should not be forced to bargain under austerity measures. Alberta has an obligation to fund and provide decent public services through their collection of our taxes. 

Yet they continue to refuse to meet these obligations. They treat Albertans like they’re not entitled to demand better. We see the results of this broken “social” contract by this government, and we will continue to demand better!❚ 

Jorge Illanes is president of CUPE Local 3550, which represents Edmonton Public Schools support staff. 

Jorge Illanes
Jorge Illanes

President, CUPE Local 3550

Read more

View the entire digital issue of the ATA News

See the latest issue