David Robbins | CUPE Communications

Photo of worried female teacher at desk in front of blank blackboardGloria Lepine had had enough.  

“I need danger pay,” Lepine told her employer, Edmonton Public Schools. That comment got the employer’s attention.  

Chief Steward for CUPE 3550, Lepine, along with hundreds of other educational assistants (EAs), was getting more vocal about the ongoing violence in their workplace. As a member of CUPE’s National Executive Board, Lepine was instrumental in her local’s decision to work with the employer to create a policy to stop the violence. 

CUPE 3550 represents over 3,000 support staff workers (including educational assistants, library and office workers, technicians, and food services staff) who support thousands of Edmonton students every day.

Support staff workers were filing incident reports on a weekly—sometimes daily—basis. The violence that educational assistants and other staff faced from students—including biting, hitting and kicking—got so serious at one school that four EAs invoked their right to refuse unsafe work.

There were claims to the Workers’ Compensation Board, and physical and psychological injuries were common, Lepine says. “We said, this is crazy. We need a policy on violence in the workplace.” 

Adding to the pressure was Alberta Education and Edmonton Public Schools’ policy of “full inclusion” in the community schools. This meant that kids with different learning needs were all placed in the same class as the “mainstream” kids. However, the employer wasn’t always providing the level of support needed to ensure a productive learning environment for all students.  

Lepine points out that the problems weren’t always coming from the “inclusion kids.” The vast majority of the kids acting out, she says, were mainstream kids. “We’re prepared to take care of the needs of the special needs kids,” Lepine says.

CUPE 3550 worked with all Edmonton Public Schools staff groups (including the Alberta Teachers’ Association, CUPE 474 Custodians, and CUPE 784 Maintenance) to press for a joint committee with the employer to develop a policy on violence in the workplace. 

To their credit, Edmonton Public Schools saw the wisdom in making schools safer and engaged with the unions to create a policy. The process took 3.5 years but was ultimately successful. Lepine says the concerns of workers are at the centre of the new policy.  

“We’re happy with the outcome,” Lepine says. “The policy helps ensure safety for our members.” 

This joint approach may not work at every workplace. But unions can play a role in shaping policy for the better, if employers are willing to listen. 

Workplace violence is a serious hazard that many CUPE members face every day. That’s why we’ve recently launched CUPE’s national response on workplace violence and harassment. We’re providing locals and members with the tools they need to educate their members about their rights on the job, and to tackle the issue or violence at work with their employer. If you are looking for resources on workplace violence, visit cupe.ca/violence-prevention-kit.