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The benefits of provincial bargaining, fighting privatization and staying safe in the face of cutbacks and the threat of H1N1 were hot topics at the microphones during Sunday’s meeting of more than 200 school board delegates.

Activists from across the country found much common ground. The meeting, facilitated by research representative Paul O’Donnell, featured regional reports and looked at key convention resolutions on H1N1 and preparation for pandemic outbreaks.

New Brunswick’s Delalene Harris Foran opened with an update on privatized (P3) schools in Rexton and Moncton. In response, delegates from Alberta reported on the provincial government having to scale back plans for P3 schools due to shaky private financing. Archie Walker of CUPE 4153 (Hamilton) pointed delegates to strong collective agreement language that his local has bargained in the event of a P3.

On the health and safety front, Sylvain Ladouceur from CUPE 4296 in Quebec raised the issue of asbestos removal and safety issues for CUPE members. A number of delegates shared stories, and Ontario’s Don Poster, co-chair of the division health and safety committee, flagged new Ontario regulations governing asbestos removal.

The hottest topic of the day was the impact of H1N1 on CUPE workers and on schools. Wilfredine Crowdis of CUPE 955 in Nova Scotia spoke from the perspective of a 38-year school board employee. In addition to the negative effect of declining enrolment and funding cuts on staff health, she said that H1N1 has meant extra paper work and extra cleaning, but no extra time from the employer.

Following a brief presentation and advice from a representative of the Ontario Nurses’ Association, Katie McGovern of CUPE 4400 in Toronto talked about the lessons learned (or not) from the SARS crisis. She recalled school bathrooms without the soap and paper towels needed to follow basic public health protocols for hand washing. Parents and the communities were simply not aware of the sorry state of schools. But stories abounded about slow or “for show” employer and government responses to H1N1 and led many to worry that we are about to repeat the same mistakes as with SARS. The importance of informing our communities, sharing resources, including reports on H1N1 preparedness, and coordinating across CUPE’s health care and education workers who face similar health and safety issues.

While there were many difficult stories of staff and service cuts, including those in British Columbia from CUPE 389 president Cindy McQueen, there were also some victories. CUPE 2745’s Sandy Harding lifted spirits with a tale of victory. Following the issuing of 588 layoff notices the province-wide New Brunswick local mounted a successful campaign to mobilize members and the public. Victory included reversing the layoffs and helping to get a new education minister.

The benefits of provincial and sectoral bargaining were evident in the presentation of Terri Preston of the Ontario Schools Coordinating Committee. A process to seek a province-wide benefits package and a funding formula review which will include facilities are just some of the big issues on the provincial table. Like many provinces CUPE locals in Ontario are dealing with the possible introduction of full-day learning for 4 and 5-year olds.

Momentum for provincial bargaining was in evidence across the west. Saskatchewan’s Brigitte Scotte, who chairs the Education Workers Steering Committee, shared a positive experience working towards a more province-wide approach with Saskatchewan’s Education Minister. And British Columbia’s Deb Taylor, president of CUPE 723 on Vancouver Island and chair of CUPE BC’s K-12 committee, closed the session with a positive report on the recent establishment of an historic province-wide CUPE bargaining council for British Columbia locals.