Education minister’s bluff called by apoplectic schoolteachers! Now what?

The trading pit: Is this what Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson sees when he thinks of the Alberta Teachers Association? Actual Alberta schoolteachers may not be exactly as illustrated. Then again, these days … Below: Mr. Johnson and ATA President Carol Henderson.

OK, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s bizarre attempt to bluff the province’s 35,000 unionized schoolteachers into signing a contract has failed. Now what?

One week ago, Mr. Johnson mailed the president of the Alberta Teachers Association and the Chair of the Alberta School Boards Association a rambling letter setting out the government’s latest bargaining demands in what’s turned out to be a rocky round of negotiations with the province’s teachers.

While not particularly generous, it could be argued the government’s parsimonious position wasn’t all that far from the ATA’s modest last offer – a four-year deal with no pay increase in the first three years and a 1-per-cent lump sum in the fourth versus a four-year-deal with no pay increase in the first two years and 1 per cent and 3 per cent in the final two years.

The two sides also have differences over workload issues and how to resolve them. Still, veteran labour negotiators have bridged far bigger gaps when everyone agrees to sit down and act like grownups.

However, Mr. Johnson – who according to his official Legislature biography has a background selling photocopying machines and as a “futures trading floor pit boss” – blew the idea of playing nice to smithereens when he included a threat in his letter to cut teachers’ salaries if they wouldn’t agree to his proposal by March 7, when the provincial budget is scheduled to be tabled in the Alberta Legislature.

He’d already publicly mused about using legislation to force the teachers to live with whatever sort of a deal he wants to impose on them.

Well, maybe that kind of thing works when you’re a pit boss on the notoriously chaotic futures trading arena. But in labour negotiations it’s like waving the proverbial red flag in the face of a big angry bull.

Teachers all across the province – key members of the unnatural coalition that unexpectedly re-elected Ms. Redford and her government last April – collectively blew a gasket.

Yesterday, ATA President Carol Henderson told Mr. Johnson he could drop dead, although not in quite as many words.

“Teachers do not respond well to ultimatums,” she advised a news conference where, surrounded by teachers from throughout the province, she said the ATA’s Executive Council has unanimously rejected the government’s demand.

So if Mr. Johnson and the government of Premier Alison Redford had imagined they could force a deal with teachers to be signed by the time the budget comes down in eight days, that idea’s now done like dinner.

It’s almost as if Mr. Johnson had the misapprehension teachers couldn’t add up simple sums – they teach arithmetic, for heaven’s sake – and figure out that whatever they agreed to now could have no possible impact on a budget that is already written, sent to the printers and has quite possibly already rolled off the press!

It’s hard to imagine the pandemonium of negotiations among the ATA and various school boards across the province, which is apparently what’s on the agenda now that Mr. Johnson’s bluff has been called, being anything except protracted, acrimonious and politically deeply embarrassing for the government.

And if the government steps in now and legislates any deal for the teachers, it’s almost certain to destroy the progressive coalition that came to Ms. Redford’s rescue on April 23.

So what could Mr. Johnson have been thinking when he drafted his ridiculous letter – which seems to have been specially designed to wreck one of the few areas where the Redford Government has been doing quite well, labour relations with public sector unions?

After all, the fiasco that now seems very likely is sure to make us all forget the five years of labour peace with teachers shrewdly negotiated by the government of former premier Ed Stelmach, Ms. Redford’s unlucky predecessor, who nowadays looks pretty good.

In an excellent blog post yesterday, author Dave Cournoyer suggests the whole strange episode goes back to the deep divisions within the Progressive Conservative caucus over Ms. Redford’s leadership.

Mr. Cournoyer suggests Tory caucus members who supported other leadership candidates – which would be pretty well all of them – blame teachers for joining the party and electing Ms. Redford as leader.

“The tension is said to have led to more than a few heated arguments behind the thick wooden doors of Tory caucus meetings,” he wrote, considerably understating widespread rumours of screaming matches between the education minister and the premier. Well, she can hardly fire Mr. Johnson – the third education minister in as many years – without suffering another black eye.

So now, according to this way of thinking, disgruntled supporters of candidates such as Gary Mar, Ted Morton and Finance Minister Doug Horner are out for revenge against Alberta’s teachers.

On the face of it, this interpretation is almost as bizarre as Mr. Johnson’s negotiating strategy. After all, while teachers may have voted for Ms. Redford’s leadership, they also voted for her government – saving many a Tory MLA’s job in April 2012.

What’s more, they would almost certainly have done so again, had Mr. Johnson not blundered into their negotiations.

Still, as Sherlock Holmes so famously observed, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

And it’s getting so that Albertans need the assistance of a famous “consulting detective,” and not a fictional one either, to figure out what this government is up to!

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7 Comments on "Education minister’s bluff called by apoplectic schoolteachers! Now what?"

  1. Jacques says:

    You hit the proverbial nail squarely and firmly on the head.

    Jolly Jeff Johnson has absolutely no political future in this province. His boosters should run for the hills.

    The problem is this isn’t going away now. Teachers can fight and they woke up a beast that I have watched unleash itself more than once in my lifetime. It ain’t pretty when the ATA and teachers across Alberta go a huntin. This salesman just lost his job, Albertans won’t trust him over teachers and I bet he doesn’t even know it happened.

  2. Lorac says:

    There have been some winners in the portfolio of education minister and looks like there is another one! This guy is a certified moron. You get more flies with honey then vinegar said my mother, a wise woman. The expectations on teachers has grown to monumental proportions – more and more added with integration, differentiation, and expectations to improve PAT scores every year. A 70 to 80 hour work week is just not sustainable :(

  3. Tom in Ontario says:

    While he’s at it your Minister of Education could commit the next most common blunder on the list—telling the world that “the leadership of the teachers’ federation doesn’t represent the views of the members.” Many a minister in other provinces have come out with that one with a sure fire result: uniting teachers behind their union in ways their leadership can only dream of.

  4. Paddy O'Gogue says:

    Well what do you know, Jeff Johnson actually got it right when he said the ATA leadership don’t represent the views of the members. Our provincial executive has gone behind our back again, negotiating in secret with the province and pretending that all our negotiating efforts should be with the school boards.

    And the amazing deal they recommend we accept? 0%, 0%, 1% and 2% plus a bonus of 1% in 2016, if the province agrees to pay it then. In return, we’ll get a survey on workload (again) which will report that teachers workload could be significantly reduced by not surveying teachers on workload every 48 seconds.

    Teachers on the ground are apoplectic alright, they are apoplectic with the association we pay $1000 plus a year to represent our interests, who want to raise those dues by 3% each year while we get raises of 0% each year.

    I predict that the offer will be rejected, members will protest in droves about the fee rises and Carol Henderson and the rest of the ATA executive who cooked up this big bowl of grits for us to eat while they feast on champagne and caviar will be out of office before the end of the year.

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