Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Will New Collective Agreement Help NB's Autistic Students?
CUPE Local 2745, the union representing about 3,000 educational and clerical support staff in New Brunswick, including teacher assistants (TA's), has reached a tentative agreement with the Province of New Brunswick. No details are expected to be released until after a late March ratification vote. Local president Sandy Harding has stated that the tentative agreement brings improvements for their members on issues such as guaranteed hours of work and weeks of employment. Many autistic school children need the help of teacher assistants to learn, even to cope and attend school in safety.
The traditional collective bargaining model is an employer-employee-union model. It does not provide for direct participation by those representing the interests affected by the results of bargaining - in this case children, including autistic children, with whom the TA's work. Parents and advocates for autistic school children must lobby perpetually with both government and union in order to have their children's interests taken into account in collective bargaining.
Historically a number of collective agreement issues have caused difficulty for New Brunswick's autistic students. One is the lack of autism specific training for TA's assigned to work with autistic students. CUPE historically has shown no interest in fighting for such training for its members despite overtures from the Autism Society New Brunswick. Given the solid commitment by Premier Graham and Education Minister Lamrock to provide autism specific training to TA's at the UNC-CEL Autism Intervention Training program this issue should not be problem under the new agreement.
Hopefully the new collective agreement will address problems which have arisen in some cases from use of seniority rights. By means of seniority some TA's, lacking training or experience with autism, have for personal reasons, bumped more junior, better trained TA's even where the TA had developed a working relationship with an autistic student. In other cases autism trained TA's with seniority have used their seniority to seek a post working with a non-autistic child. "Bumping day", when positions are re-assigned on the basis of seniority, takes place shortly after the start of the school year leaving no opportunity for planning for an autistic child's school year.
Many of these problems were admittedly reduced by use of clauses permitting the Department of Education to prevent a TA from being bumped by a more senior TA in special circumstances and by the cooperation of many TA's who put the childrens' interests first. But problems have arisen often and when it is your child who is affected by loss of a TA with autism training, or experience working with your child, solely on the basis of seniority it can be very unsettling. Hopefully these issues have been addressed, and the childrens' interests better protected, in the new collective agreement.
The Department of Education has also been remiss in allowing District Superintendents to unofficially cap the hours of TA's working with children. If an autistic child is fortunate enough to have an autism trained, experienced TA the TA is still not permitted to work the full day with the child in many districts. The hours are capped in order to prevent the TA, from acquiring full employee status, and benefits, under the relevant legislation and agreements. Hopefully this issue too has been addressed in the new collective agreement. The TA's are valuable players in the education of autistic children in New Brunswick schools. They deserve the status, income and benefits that reflect the important role they play in educating autistic children. and the children deserve to have available properly trained personnel working with them.
In the absence of solid information we can only wait until the ratification of the agreement at the end of March. Hopefully these issues have all been resolved. The TA's work with children with special needs. Education Minister Lamrock has made it very clear that he will not let adult interests interfere with the best interests of children. That should mean some good news for autistic children in the new CUPE collective agreement.