Redford government floats risky scheme to impose contract on teachers

An Alberta Teachers Association member gets ready to give an important lesson to the Redford Government. Alberta teachers may not be smiling quite as broadly as illustrated if the government imposes a contract on them by legislation. Below: Education Minister Jeff Johnson.

Trapped in a no-deficit, no-tax-increase cage of its own devising, with few ideas and a budget looming on March 7, the government of Premier Alison Redford has floated the idea of using legislation to impose a salary cap on Alberta’s teachers.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson has been shopping this brainstorm around to the province’s school boards to see who salutes and who heaves rotten tomatoes.

Needless to say, the Alberta Teachers Association was not impressed. ATA President Carol Henderson expressed shock and dismay at what Mr. Johnson’s been saying, warning that even running the idea up the flagpole puts the government’s relationship with the province’s teachers at risk.

The same kind of thing has been tried in both British Columbia and Ontario, she noted, and the results have hardly been auspicious.

In this, Ms. Henderson got it right. A certain amount of disdain for the collective bargaining process is normal nowadays among unionized professionals like teachers. But getting between them and a raise they both expect and believe they deserve is an entirely different matter.

Mr. Johnson’s press secretary, meanwhile, told media in Edmonton there’s been strong support for the scheme among at least some of the boards the minister has approached – which, by the sound of it, has been most of them.

No surprise there either, since it was back to chaotic local negotiations between school boards and teachers late last year after province-wide tripartite bargaining among the ATA, the boards and the government collapsed.

So rather than shouting at each other about market principles, the value of unions and broken promises, let’s just take a breath and think about what this really means in practical political terms.

Notwithstanding the inevitable angry rhetoric of people who hate unions and hate teachers, of whom there is no shortage in Alberta, the relationship between the Progressive Conservative government and the ATA has long been a very comfortable and productive one, if not quite cozy.

It probably overstates the case to call the ATA a branch of the PC Party, as has been muttered darkly from time to time in the pinker corners of Alberta’s labour movement, but it can certainly said that not only have many Alberta teachers voted Conservative for years, they have done so without discomfiting their leaders overmuch, with few exceptions. More than one Tory cabinet minister has ascended from the ranks of the ATA.

However, in last spring’s Alberta election, when it looked very much as if the charter-school-loving Wildrose Party was on the verge of wresting power from the PCs in the desperate final hours before April 23, teachers of all political stripes rallied to the side of the government and helped snatch its bacon from the flames.

In this – to the bitter disappointment of the opposition parties of the left and right – they were joined by unionized health care workers and government employees in large numbers.

So there can be no doubt that if the government, pleading poverty in the midst of oily plenty, now turns on the teachers and imposes a two- or three-year deal, it will be seen with some justice as a case of the government screwing the very people who saved its bacon.

Alberta teachers will likely respond with some kind of job action, as has been tried in Ontario by teachers dealt a similar hand by the Liberal government of outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty for much the same reasons.

To wit, they will do things like refuse to participate in extra curricular programs, and loudly fight with the government about it, lending an air of crisis to a government that needs to project an image of calm if it is to survive.

Moreover, other public sector unions – every one of which is likely to have negotiations with the government or a public agency in the approximate time frame of this government’s life – will conclude they can no longer trust the Redford crowd.

This will ratchet up the sense of looming crisis already being amplified by the government’s very public fight with the Alberta Medical Association, which Health Minister Fred Horne also seems to be of a mind to continue.

And for what? A vain attempt to win back voters who have already left the Tory party, most likely forever, to join the Wildrose ranks? A favourable editorial in the National Post?

Supporters of imposing contracts by legislation within the government – who are not necessarily the government’s best friends – will argue that public sector unions don’t command the support of their own members, at least when it comes to whom to vote for. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that there is more than a little truth to this.

But in the event, it is said here, this is not likely to work the way advocates of legislation expect. More likely, public employees will ignore the half-hearted tacit advice of their leaders and not support the government coalition in 2015, either by returning to the Alberta Liberals and the NDP or by throwing caution to the wind and voting Wildrose for a change.

So it is a sure bet that, no matter what they say for public consumption, all of Alberta’s opposition parties are cheering the Tories on in this desperate enterprise. New Democrats, Liberals and Wildrosers alike stand to benefit significantly from the sense of crisis and disorder that is sure to follow such a bonehead play, and the votes that will directly come their way as a consequence of it.

Once such a policy is clear, moreover, every one of them will accuse the government of breaking another promise – this one of stable and predictable funding in education. Again, they will be quite justified.

As has been said here before, the Redford Tories would be smarter to be mindful of whom their friends are, run a deficit and proudly boast they are protecting public programs – all the while praying for the timely return of higher petroleum prices soon enough to accommodate their electoral schedule.

Of course, this would require them to go against an instinct for austerity and confrontation that is bred in Alberta Tory bones.

Can they put reason ahead of passion? We’ll likely see on March 7, when the Budget Speech is read.

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11 Comments on "Redford government floats risky scheme to impose contract on teachers"

  1. Jeff says:

    This government reminds me of the failing days of the Federal Liberals under Paul Martin.

    Redford alienated the right by chasing after the left.
    Now the left are getting the shaft.

    2016 I think we’ll see a squeeze. Hopefully a Wildrose minority with the Liberals getting double or triple their current seats.

  2. jerrymacgp says:

    I have never understood the capacity of the Alberta worker to vote against his or her own best interests. The PC party has never been a friend of labour; this province’s Edwardian labour & employment standards laws and dismally low minimum wage (how can relatively impoverished Nova Scotia have a higher minimum wage than booming Alberta?) are a key indicator of where the government’s sympathies lie: with the corporate sector that funds the governing party. Meanwhile, the Tea Party of Alberta (officially known as Wildrose) is even more anti-union than the PCs, if that’s possible.

    So why is it so hard to get organized labour (and its membership) to support its only true friend in politics, the NDP? Two of Alberta’s largest and most influential unions, AUPE & UNA (your own employer, as I recall) are officially non-partisan, and refuse to endorse or support any political party; in the case of UNA, at least, I know that this is at the will of the rank & file, not the leadership.

    Alberta voters, including its unionized workers, have a tendency to demonstrate Albert Einsteins’s definition of insanity: they keep voting for the same party, election after election after election, for 42 years and counting, but they seem to expect different outcomes from those elections than they have been getting.

  3. Tom in Ontario says:

    “More likely, public employees will ignore the half-hearted tacit advice of their leaders and not support the government coalition in 2015, either by returning to the Alberta Liberals and the NDP or by throwing caution to the wind and voting Wildrose for a change.”

    I don’t know about Alberta but from our experience with rabid right wing parties in Ontario, any public servant or teacher who votes that way ought to submit to psychiatric assessment.

  4. Lars says:

    A certain amount of distain

    Is this a real word or a typo, David? Not trying to be snarky here, just thought that it might be something new to me.

    And is that Doris Day at the blackboard there? It looks like her.

  5. jay says:

    jerrymacgp: I don’t disagree with you, but it would help if the 2 centre-left parties (or 3? Alberta Party?) didn’t feel they had the luxury of running against each other–in Alberta!

  6. Sam Gunsch says:

    excerpt: Even with $6 billion revenue shortfall Alberta won’t change royalties … › Business

    CALGARY – Alberta Premier Alison Redford says raising royalty rates for energy…”

    (raising rates…would be pulling a Stelmach… and Stelmach sleeps with the fishes… and I don’t like fishes. S.G. )

    The corporatist political/governance system of Alberta the PC’s have relied upon for control, between elections, since Klein’s launch, may have finally boxed the Tories themselves into a lose-lose scenario.

    When the PC’s biggest joint venture group – OilTarGas/Calgary topfloor offices – refuses to share sufficiently of their proceeds from running the family’s corporate province, then some of the weaker groups that have relied upon direct relationships with PC’s – e.g. ATA – have to pay the price/shortfall, i.e. because education is a cost to society (not an revenue source for the party like tarsands). Or at least that’s how this corporate province’s affairs appear to me.

    Fail to connect with the citizenry except when you need a raise, rely on corporatist relationships… …live by the sword… of corporatism.

    Maybe if union leadership thought it helpful to invest more in connecting with the citizenry, in citizen-based democracy, in actually advocating for education as a public good moreso than going along with industry’s job training factory model… maybe then they’d have broader support from the citizenry. d

    dunno… but if unions have noticed that they are seen as simply another vested interest by many in Alberta, is it all due to right-wing market fundamentalist propaganda?

    Sam Gunsch

  7. irene jacobson says:

    It just goes to show you , that people do NOT understand their Politics! For years, we have traded off the Liberals for the Conservatives and vice versa. Each time the general public gets disenchanted with one, they vote for the other! Don’t they know they are both, Right Wing Parties. Right Wing Parties represent and are supported by Big Business,and The Corporations. These days they are both Blue Torries, FAR RIGHT! In fact, it’s not even the Parties running our country, The Corporations are! World Wide they have infiltrated into goernments in many different countries. They buy off Politicians, change labour laws, change environmental laws, go into a country , make promises, strip the country of it’s natural resources, destroy the environment , and put the masses into poverty! They pocket the riches, and pay, absolutely NO TAXES. These World Conglomerates have no loyalty to anyone, or any country. Greed modivates them. And so, a small portion of the sheeples march over to the polls and put in the wolf dressed in sheeples clothing! Time after time we see the same choices and the same results. Why in heaven’s name would a average working man VOTE against himself? Except he does not have a clue what the heck he’s voting for! Don’t like Politics, is often a cry I hear, but then they complain on and on after elections. Don’t like Politics, then just remember Liberals and Conservatives are both Parties that support BIG BUSINESS and CORPORATIONS—IF YOU OWN ONE, OR THE OTHER—VOTE FOR THEM! But, in you are one of the 99%, and own a small business, or you are in the workforce, VOTE FOR THE NEW DEMOCRATES PARTY, it’s a Party of the people, by the people, and for the people! Don’t believe what you hear on SOCIAL MEDIA—THEY ARE OWNED BY THREE WORLD CONGLOMERATES! Don’t you ever get tired of watching the same boring story each and every News hour, over and over again? Do you really believe that it all that’s happening in our world? Take a good look at countries in turmoil, they are fighting against their own GOVERNMENTS where the Corporations took over. They recruited PRISONERS into their armies to fight against their own people! Wake up, Wake up, it’s been happening in country after country and now, IT’S OUR TURN!

  8. ABobsever says:

    Ït is a fact that Alberta teacher’s make more than others in Canada. How much over 100 thousand should a 11 year experience teacher make?

  9. Misrithenay says:

    Abobsever: most teachers are not making over 100 K, but that’s beside the point. If you look at the proposal advanced by the ATA, the teachers themselves actually proposed a wage freeze. There are other, more complicated, issues at play than just money. All of the govt press releases focus on money because it’s to their advantage to project an image of the money hungry teacher.

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