For Alberta’s teachers, the period from April 2001 to June 2002 was a time of great upheaval in our profession.
In fact, the February 2002 strike by over two-thirds of our membership—21,000 teachers in almost every corner of the province—was arguably the single largest labour disruption in Alberta’s history.
From hindsight, any major development can seem inevitable. There is something about the use of a mental rear-view mirror that convinces us that it had to be this way, and we can easily fall into that mental mistake in this case.
It is true that the 2002 strike was the result of serious problems that had been growing since at least 1990. In addition, the continuing conflict with the Alberta government after the upheaval of 2002 remained the overwhelming focus of the Alberta Teachers’ Association until the end of 2007, when a broad agreement facilitated by a new premier brought a number of the key issues to a satisfactory resolution.
But that does not mean that the 2002 conflict was inevitable; in fact, in the first part of the four-year period when I was ATA president, in the months from mid-1999 to April 2001, the signs were actually promising.
Dr. Lyle Oberg took over as minister of learning in April 1999 and quickly contacted me, as president-elect of the ATA. We had an encouraging one-on-one lunch meeting, where I invited him to meet with the ATA’s Provincial Executive Council, and that meeting also went well.
The ATA was at that point embroiled in a major dispute with the government over two negative changes advanced by Gary Mar, the previous education minister—a proposal to remove teachers’ important right of appeal of dismissal to a quasi-judicial body, the Board of Reference; and a misguided attempt to link teacher salaries to student achievement, the $66 million School Performance Indicators Project (SPIP), which was characterized by then-Associate Executive Secretary Gordon Thomas as “merit pay in drag.”
Oberg made an important decision to step back from this unnecessary conflict and withdrew both proposals. In the case of SPIP, he took an even more encouraging step. The ATA, working with the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA), the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) and other “education partners” had presented an alternative and constructive proposal for the $66 million that would foster the growth of genuine school improvement across the province. Oberg agreed to work with the education partners to that end, and after months of cooperative negotiations, the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement was launched in December 1999. It has since proved to be one of the most important school improvement initiatives in North America; all indicators seemed to promise even better times ahead.
Positive prospects for cooperation were furthered by the actions of the ASBA, whose new president, Lois Byers, saw the potential for additional joint action to address the problems facing teachers and school boards. The newly cohesive “education partners,” chaired by Byers, launched an ambitious plan to develop a comprehensive Vision and Agenda for Public Education to guide decisions about the next steps in education, and the resulting document was promoted as a consensus approach of the key players in public education in Alberta. It focused on the need to develop the full potential of every child and addressed many of the deep frustrations of teachers over classroom conditions. As ATA president, I travelled around the province, doing interviews with 72 weekly newspapers, promoting the Vision and Agenda and the potential for cooperation and improvement.
In April 2001, things looked even more promising when Premier Ralph Klein publicly promised to address teachers’ long-standing concerns over salaries and classroom conditions in the provincial budget, expected at the end of April. Nurses and doctors had recently received substantial salary increases, and Klein stated that teachers had also made sacrifices in the difficult years of the mid-1990s, and their contribution would be recognized as well. Expectations were high, and there was a strong feeling that a frustrating decade of fighting for improvements was about to give way to better times.
But the budget tabled at the end of April 2001 not only failed to deliver on the premier’s well-publicized assurances, it went in precisely the opposite direction. Oberg announced a dramatic and unprecedented intervention into teacher–school board negotiations, with a decision to earmark four per cent for teacher salary increases in the first year and two per cent in the second year.
The effect of this highly provocative move was immediate. Clearly, if teacher salaries were to increase beyond the inadequate level in the budget, the increase would have to come from money allocated to school boards, which was needed to improve classroom conditions—and teachers would no doubt be depicted as villains who chose salaries over children.
Teachers reacted with much more than disappointment—there was a palpable sense of frustration and anger in schools around Alberta. The government’s action was seen as both cynical and wilfully inflammatory. This wealthy province had an obligation to substantially improve both teacher compensation and classroom conditions, and if the government was once again going to ignore those concerns and instead directly intervene in the bargaining process, then there was no alternative for teachers but labour action.
It is still a source of conjecture why the minister chose such a needlessly confrontational route, and why the government agreed. ASBA President Byers denounced the move as an unacceptable intervention into a clear area of school board responsibility.
The ATA leadership had received one previous warning at the end March from a highly reliable source that Oberg would run for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party when Premier Klein eventually stepped down. Health Minister Mar, already a perceived leadership contender, was depicted as having given away the store to nurses and doctors, and Oberg would use tough action against teachers to demonstrate how to deal with the public sector and to bolster his credibility with the right wing of the party. The warning seemed unfounded when Klein made his public statement in early April about how teachers were to be “rewarded” in the budget.
Regardless of the possible motivation, Oberg’s actions led directly to a growing confrontation that engulfed the education system during the following year and reverberated for years after.
Preparing for action
The dynamics of the situation were complicated and challenging. Many teachers were as upset, if not more upset, by the teaching conditions in their schools as they were by the insulting salary announcement. Clearly, then, they had to take a principled position to reject any salary improvement that would take money from the classroom. They would need to pressure the province to put in enough funding for improvements in both areas.
That meant the focus would have to be on the provincial government rather than school boards, although Alberta’s teachers had a long tradition of local bargaining and the ATA’s structures were geared to a local approach with provincial assistance. It was clear that the situation would require a substantially enhanced provincial role in bargaining
One other thing was certain: our strategy had to reflect a clear buy-in by teachers at the local level, both to be consistent with the democratic nature of our organization and to ensure that those who participated were doing so with their eyes wide open—there could be no unwilling conscripts among locals.
Confronting the Alberta government meant taking on an entrenched, powerful and tough entity that lately seemed to have little respect for teachers and their work. And given that strikes are never popular, teachers had to fully understand the situation in choosing to proceed.
The ATA’s Provincial Executive Council quickly settled on a comprehensive approach, which was then taken to a meeting of the Annual Representative Assembly, held on the May long weekend in 2001. The 450 teacher delegates from across the province overwhelmingly approved the proposed approach, giving a clear indication that Alberta’s teachers were solidly committed to a united course of action, ratified in an extraordinary vote that was held on the steps of Alberta’s legislative.
The stated goals in the ATA’s resolution called on the government to provide sufficient funding to allow school boards to directly address three crucial areas for teachers: classroom conditions that allow us to do our best work with children; compensation that reflects our important contribution and improvements specifically aimed at young teachers in the profession; and encouraging teacher recruitment and retention.
The bargaining strategy approved was an effective blend of local and provincial elements, called “provincially coordinated local collective bargaining.” It preserved the right to local bargaining, but with enhanced provincial coordination of local efforts and approval of local contracts. Locals would only proceed on the basis of a local vote, and every teacher would have a vote. The understanding was clear: those locals that were not enthusiastic could sit back and watch as long as they did not sign contracts that undercut the overall effort. There were enough angry teachers in regions around the province to ensure provincewide action.
At the same time, the goal was not to have a strike but to convince the government to provide the funding necessary to solve the problems facing teachers and boards; the final part of my speech on the steps of the legislature urged the government to “avoid this needless conflict and make the necessary investments in public education.”
The February 2002 strike
The government, however, soon demonstrated that it was not interested in avoiding a conflict. We heard from superintendents that Oberg had told them that the government had a clear plan to deal with any potential problems, and the public would be sympathetic to the government in the conflict to come.
Conflict became even more likely with a change in leadership at the ASBA, after Lois Byers finished her term. The new ASBA leadership rejected offers from the ATA to work together to advocate for more funding to deal with the problems; ASBA became much more aligned with the government and seemed to see labour strife as an opportunity to assert its management rights with help from the government.
As 2001 ended, support for labour action was growing dramatically among teachers across the province. I had originally thought that we might have seven teacher bargaining units in different parts of the province taking the lead, as part of a first wave. I remember being surprised when the ATA’s Teacher Welfare coordinator advised me in late 2001 that there were likely more than 20 bargaining units that wanted to be in the front line, representing about two-thirds of our membership.
In addition, the votes to authorize strikes by the full membership of locals were overwhelming. As I travelled around the province to attend these local meetings, I was struck by the level of solidarity and commitment—teachers throughout Alberta wanted change, and they were prepared to do what was necessary to bring it about.
This unprecedented level of commitment by teachers, however, seemed to make no impression on either Oberg or the ASBA; rather than look for common ground, their plan increasingly appeared to be to let teachers go on strike, order them back to work, and impose a settlement.
The ATA leadership selected February 4, 2002, as the start of the strike, chosen in part to avoid disruption of Grade 12 diploma exams written at the end of January. While some took the view that the whole point of a strike is to cause maximum disruption, most teacher representatives felt that the exams should go forward, a decision that was well received by the public.
The February strike received intense media attention; as president, I gave more than 1,000 media interviews in the six-month period surrounding the withdrawal of services, and we were determined to use the situation to shine a light on the decade-long concerns that had led teachers to such dramatic action (the first strike by teachers anywhere in Alberta since 1992). The degree of public support for teachers’ concerns came as a surprise to some, but we had worked for years to draw attention to the need for better classroom conditions in a province that could so clearly afford it, and the issue resonated with many parents.
The government used an order-in-council to force an end to the strike on February 21, and the terms of the order created a dilemma, as there was a fair arbitration process and a respected arbitrator appointed, which would be essential to teachers; however, some teachers were ordered back to work after being on strike for only one day—a clear violation of their basic right to withdraw services.
One of the great strengths of the ATA leadership during this long period of struggle was the systematic use of strategic planning by Provincial Executive Council and ATA executive staff. We consistently laid out all possible scenarios at each stage and decided on appropriate courses of action in advance. In this case, despite the risk of losing a fair arbitration process, it was clear that we had to follow a principled course and challenge the back-to-work order in the courts. At the same time, we asked teachers to obey the law and wait for the decision.
The March 1 judgment by Alberta Chief Justice Wachowich was a complete vindication of the teachers’ position, as well as a victory for the rule of law. The chief justice stated in clear terms that the government could not simply order teachers back to work because they wanted to, that disruption and inconvenience were a necessary part of the right to strike and that an “emergency” had not been demonstrated; he even awarded costs to the ATA.
The legislative hammer
This important victory came with a serious cost, however. The fair arbitration process specified by the minister of human resources in the original order was also struck down, and we had heard that the learning minister now had a much more punitive model in mind. In addition, while teachers in some jurisdictions were anxious to resume strike action, many more had been on strike for almost three weeks, feeling that the point had been made and other options should be explored.
Once again, Provincial Executive Council laid out a clear path for each scenario, and within hours of the court decision, I contacted Premier Klein’s office to arrange a meeting, stating that our goal was to achieve an agreement, that the premier was the key to bringing it about, and we would not resume the strike during these discussions. The premier agreed, and we met three days later.
The ATA had two goals for the meeting: reinstatement of the fair arbitration process envisioned in the original back-to-work order so that we could resolve bargaining issues, and the establishment of a “high profile learning commission” to deal with the underlying and unaddressed problems in classroom conditions that had been central to the dispute. The premier was quite receptive, and a resolution appeared possible.
However, within two days, the ASBA and some individual school boards called upon the premier and the government to use the heavy hand of legislation to impose a solution favourable to boards. The ATA prepared for the worst, particularly when it became clear that the legislation would be developed by the learning minister.
And on Monday, March 11, the worst definitely arrived, in the form of Bill 12, one of the most gratuitous and draconian pieces of labour legislation in Canadian history, rushed through the legislature in only a few days. Not only did the legislation impose a blatantly unfair arbitration process, but it stripped from collective agreements existing clauses protecting hours of work and class size, prohibited strikes by teachers for an extended period, and banned activities that could be deemed to be promoting labour action—all of this after teachers had offered Premier Klein a clear and fair alternative that would have led to concluding collective agreements and addressed underlying classroom issues.
Fighting back in effective ways
I was never more proud of teachers and their leaders than in the period immediately following the passage of Bill 12. There were understandable calls from some for illegal strikes and various kinds of dramatic actions. Instead, the executive implemented a systematic plan for mounting pressure on the government: a court challenge to the badly flawed legislation, a public relations offensive, and a withdrawal of voluntary services by teachers across the province, including services to the provincial government such as marking exams.
The fact that teachers did not engage in illegal action, combined with the growing effect of the provincewide withdrawal of an enormous range of teachers’ voluntary services, such as coaching and supervising clubs and graduation events, had a powerful effect on public opinion, which increasingly sided with teachers. There was a growing public sentiment that teachers had made genuine efforts to be reasonable, and the government had responded with heavy-handed bullying.
Within weeks, the government indicated that it wanted to find a resolution. My first reaction was that none was possible, short of having the offensive legislation thrown out or amended, which was obviously not going to happen. However, the Association’s solicitors said that it was possible for the government to agree to “interpretations of the legislation” that would achieve the same effect, and that we should explore the opportunity on behalf of teachers.
The government was clearly rattled by the prospect of yet another defeat in the courts, and by the powerful effect of the withdrawal of voluntary services, for which it was being blamed. An agreement was reached by April 19 that guaranteed the two key conditions for teachers—a fair arbitration process to determine collective agreements and establishment of the Learning Commission to shine a light on classroom conditions. However, we also insisted on one additional element as a price for the agreement: the government agreed to assume the cost of the vexing unfunded liability component of teachers’ pensions for one year, and to enter into discussions to bring about a long-term resolution to the issue.
Understandably, not everyone was happy with this resolution. Some teachers felt that the government simply could not be trusted; others favoured more radical action. Most teachers were relieved when the arbitration process in June 2002 proved to be fair and resulted in substantial wage increases, particularly for beginning teachers. And, as the Learning Commission did its work, the problems with classroom conditions received a great deal of public attention.
The ATA had to continue to fend off numerous negative repercussions over the next few years, and there was much unfinished business, but gradually the atmosphere improved. However, there was now a profound difference in the context. Alberta’s teachers had established in the government’s and public’s mind that they were serious about their concerns regarding the conditions in which they taught children, they were prepared to stand up and pay a price if necessary, and they would not be bullied. In the process, they and their representatives showed courage, professionalism, tenacity and good judgment. It was a privilege to be involved in their efforts.
Larry Booi served as ATA president from 1999–2003, and was a member of the executive board of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. He is currently president of Public Interest Alberta and sits on the board of directors of the Canadian Council on Learning.
Labour Dispute Chronology, 2001–2002
- School property taxes are cut by $135 million and government implements more than $1 billion in cuts to personal income taxes.
- Doctors accept a two-year agreement resulting in an overall increase in their fee schedule of 21.9 per cent.
- Provincial election campaign; ATA focuses on issues of continued underfunding and class size.
- Nurses accept a two-year 21.0 per cent settlement; starting salaries for nurses are to move to $49,800 by 2002.
- Alberta Learning finally releases the Small Class Size Study, documenting the benefits of reducing class size.
- Premier Klein announces at his leadership dinner in Edmonton that because teachers were part of the solution a few years ago, they would be “both fairly compensated and given as good a work environment as possible so that they know how much they are appreciated.”
- Throne speech signals more dollars for teacher salaries “to ensure that Alberta can continue to attract and retain Canada’s best teachers.”
- MLAs receive salary increase of 3.3 per cent.
- Budget 2001: Unprecedented inclusion of a “salary enhancements” line designed to provide teachers with a 6.0 per cent increase over two years (4.0 per cent + 2.0 per cent). Other major grants are set to rise at 3.5 per cent in 2001/2002 and 3.0 per cent in 2002/2003, 0.5 per cent more than was projected in the previous provincial budget.
- Corporate income tax cuts take effect, reducing business taxes by $1 billion over four years.
- Minister of Learning Dr. Lyle Oberg informs ATA President Larry Booi that the government will not increase education funding above budgeted levels.
- Teacher representatives attending the ATA’s Annual Representative Assembly commit the province’s teachers to completing the 2000/2001 school year without disruption but warn Albertans that action may be taken during the next school year.
- Provincially coordinated local bargaining is implemented. School boards are advised that negotiations for 2001/2002 collective agreements will be conducted under the guidance of bargaining agents representing the provincial association.
- MLAs award themselves another pay increase of 11 per cent and inaugurate a new transitional allowance that awards retiring MLAs three months’ salary for every year served, based on their three highest years of income. Some MLAs stand to receive more than $500,000 upon their departure from the government.
- The first quarter fiscal update stresses that despite lower than forecasted natural gas prices, the province’s fiscal position remains strong; the provincial debt will have been reduced to $6.1 billion by the end of this fiscal year. The Alberta government remains nine years ahead of its legislated 25 year debt pay-down schedule.
- Learning Minister Oberg advises ATA officials that no additional funds will be available for basic education.
- Teachers deliver one million flyers to Alberta homes highlighting classroom underfunding, teacher shortages and undervalued teachers.
- The Alberta Union of Public Employees negotiates wage adjustments and job reclassifications resulting in total salary increases of between 12.3 and 15.7 per cent over two years. Adjustments to shift differentials and other adjustments will provide many government employees with additional increases valued at three per cent.
- Between 700 and 800 Alberta social services workers receive salary increases approaching 25 per cent in a single year. A small group of social workers will receive salary increases in excess of 40 per cent over one year.
- The government’s interim fiscal update stresses that the province’s fiscal framework is strong, the budget remains balanced and there is no need for tax hikes. Alberta’s economic growth is expected to be twice the rest of Canada’s, at 4.9 per cent for 2001—slightly higher than projected in the 2001 budget—and overall investment is projected to rise by 14.2 per cent, the fastest in Canada. As well, more than 40,000 new jobs are expected to be created in Alberta this year, the most in the country.
- Alberta Human Resources and Employment releases Prepared for Growth—Building Alberta’s Labour Supply. The report says that the unemployment rate for teachers and professors is 2.5 per cent.
- Crown prosecutors are awarded wage increases ranging from 5 to 22 per cent, retroactive to April 1.
- Second quarter fiscal update indicates that despite a North American economic slowdown, Alberta is still forecast to lead Canada in economic growth, at 4.9 per cent. Despite price fluctuations, the province is still on target to collect the second highest resource revenues in its history, amounting to $6 billion.
- MLAs award themselves a salary increase of four per cent, effective April 1, 2002. Over the last nine months, MLAs have approved three salary increases, resulting in an end-rated increase of 17.3 per cent.
- Elk Island teachers vote 91 per cent to take strike action.
- Greater Black Gold teachers vote 95 per cent to take strike action.
- Livingstone Range teachers vote 88 per cent to take strike action.
- Holy Spirit teachers vote 80 per cent to take strike action.
- Chinook’s Edge teachers vote 82 per cent to take strike action.
- ATA president meets with the minister of learning to discuss requirements for settlement.
- Provincial Executive Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association approves commencement of strike action after February 4.
· For the first time in 10 years, teachers in Alberta are on strike. More than 20,000 teachers in 22 school jurisdictions go on strike until the government orders them back to work on February 21.
· Bill 12, Education Services Settlement Act, 2002 is passed, establishing a legislated settlement process to resolve teachers’ labour dispute but preventing the process from addressing classroom conditions and stripped collective agreements of previously negotiated provisions regarding class size and instructional preparation.
· The ATA, government and Alberta School Boards Association reach agreement on matters arising from the Education Services Settlement Act.
· Teachers protest Bill 12 by withdrawing voluntary services.
· Teachers Pension Plans Amendment Act, 2002. The act enabled the government to carry out its commitment to pay teachers’ portion of the unfunded pension liability for a one-year period in accordance with an agreement between the ATA and government.
· Alberta’s Commission on Learning is established by the government.