Government actions leave teachers at a crossroads

Eilish Murphy

Alberta's teachers deserve salaries that reflect their professional status and contribution to society, and they need the classroom conditions that allow them to do their best work with all children, said ATA president Larry Booi. He was addressing 450 teachers at the 84th Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) held May 19–20, 2001, at the Westin Hotel in Edmonton.

Booi said teachers are at a crossroads because the government, in its recent provincial budget, not only failed to address long-standing concerns about public education but also made an unprecedented and provocative intervention into local collective bargaining. "The government had an unparalleled opportunity to strengthen Alberta's public education system by addressing the legitimate concerns in education as they did in health care," he said. "Instead, they chose to pick a fight with Alberta's teaching profession."

Booi pointed to recent government actions as the cause of teachers' raised expectations. Settlements in the health care sector and Premier Klein's recent promise to ensure fair compensation and good work environments to let teachers know how much they are appreciated were "clear indications that a similar approach would be followed in the education sector." Instead, Booi said teachers were confronted with a direct intervention into local bargaining and a taxpayer funded media campaign that contains misinformation about Alberta teachers being the highest paid among the provinces.

While it is not clear why the government has chosen this approach with teachers, Booi offered some theories. One view was that key government people were offended by an opening position of a 30 percent salary increase. "One needs to remember that doctors and nurses didn't open at 22 percent —they ended up at that figure," he said. Another theory is that teachers are being punished for not being cooperative. Booi noted that there has not been a teacher strike for nine years, that teachers took a 5 percent salary cut and also that teachers have worked with the government and education partners on the Teacher, Growth, Supervision and Evaluation policy, the Safe and Caring Schools program, and other programs.

Booi told the Assembly that the government still has the choice of a better path. "They could seize the opportunity in front of them to make the necessary, wise investments in our education system, which they themselves describe as the key to a knowledge society in a globally competitive world. Not only would they be addressing the legitimate concerns of teachers but they would be enhancing a vital legacy for the continuing benefit of the whole society."

Whatever reasons the government may have had for their actions, Booi told teachers that they need to determine their own approach. "Teachers understand that if we fail to bring about substantial improvements at this time, we face the continued erosion and accelerated decline of the profession."

Booi concluded by reminding teachers of the need to mobilize existing public support and of the enormous strength in the collective actions of 32,000 well-educated, committed members who are ready to do what is necessary to bring about the needed changes.