Members of the Native Court Workers and Counselling Association (NCWCA) and the B.C. Government and Services Employees’ Union (BCGEU) were on strike in front of the Fort St. James municipal court house last Monday, Nov. 17.
The court workers and union representatives are on a rotating strike throughout British Columbia in search of wage and benefit increases and amalgamation into the Community Social Services Employers’ Association (CSSEA).
Native Court workers are government funded employees that assist aboriginal, and in some cases non-aboriginal, people navigate the legal systems in British Columbia.
They inhabit the area between those who cannot afford legal counsel but are also ineligible for legal aid.
“I assist people who come into conflict with the law,” said Connie Morrisey, a native court worker responsible for the Fort St. James, Vanderhoof, Kwadacha (Fort Ware) and Tsay’keh Dene areas. “If you’re not going to qualify for legal aid, for which you need to be looking at jail time and make under $1,400 monthly, if you don’t have both of those you’re not going to qualify for legal aid… I’m the one that comes in and helps.”
Court workers went on strike after a demonstration earlier in the year and have been on strike since Oct. 1.
Morrisey said that the heart of the strike is the NCWCA’s exclusion from CSSEA which was started in 2003.
“We should have been brought into the CSSEA agreement… If we had been brought into that agreement in 2003 by this time we would have received a $10,000 wage increase as well as extended dental, health and longterm disability benefits at no cost to us.”
A significant disparity exists between the salaries of native court workers and their CSSEA counterparts like justice liaisons who do a similar job.
“Right now our starting wage is $31,800 and after four years our top wage is $39,000,” says Morrisey. “Somebody just coming into the courts who does a similar job to us starts at $45,100.”
The numbers come from the CSSEA themselves which outlines wages through a grid system.
If successful in their strike it will be the first time in five years that the NCWCA has received a wage increase in five years. Since 2002 they’ve seen their wages increase by only nine per cent compared to a an 18 per cent rate of inflation.
The financial strain has taken its toll on the NCWCA with the executive director laying off two of its three managers in order to free up some money. Morrisey says that if things continue the way they are more lay-offs will be on their way.
“We’ve been in a deficit for the last few years and have been told their could be lay-offs or that vacant positions may not be filled.” Adding, “It’s hard to draw people in with such a low salary and then to have to pay for benefits and things like that it’s hard to complete, especially in areas where the economy is quite good.”
Since the strike began, the BCGEU, who represent the NCWCA through their union and NCWCA have met with government officials for meetings once on Oct. 24 of which no progress was made, however a second meeting between the groups is scheduled to happen within the week.
Morrisey was unable to comment on whether or not the union and the NCWCA would move the strike from a rotating one to a full strike if the government does not come to an agreement with the group.