Question: Like a lot of teachers, I am very frustrated by the delay in our arbitration and the suggestion in the Mackinnon Report that the government should limit or even cut teacher salaries. My friends and I are fed up and want to “work to rule” and perhaps take other labour actions to make our point. Will the Alberta Teachers’ Association support us?
Answer: While I appreciate your frustration, what you are suggesting is illegal and could have very serious consequences for you, your friends and the Association.
In Alberta, a strike is defined as “a cessation of work, a refusal to work, or a refusal to continue to work, by two or more employees for the purpose of compelling their employer to agree to terms or conditions of employment.” This definition includes any departure from normal work practice, such as “work to rule,” as well as more traditional strike action.
The right to strike is a powerful tool ... and is very much an instrument of last resort.
A labour union can take legal strike action only if a number of conditions are met, the most fundamental being that the collective agreement between the union and the employer must be expired and that the parties must have entered into bargaining. Currently, an agreement is in place on central matters between the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Teachers’ Employer Bargaining Association (TEBA) until Aug. 31, 2020. This means that any strike action regarding salary or any other matter within the scope of the central agreement would be unlawful, and none of the protections provided for striking workers under labour law would have effect.
If you were to decide unilaterally not to perform your regular duties as a teacher and employee, you could be held by your board to be in breech of your employment contract and would be subject to disciplinary measures up to and including dismissal with cause. While the Association, in fulfillment of its duty of fair representation, would do its best to defend a teacher in this circumstance, our options would be very limited and the prospects for the teacher would not be good.
Several teachers taking action in concert could also be deemed to be engaging in an illegal strike. Not only would these teachers run the risk of being subject to sanctions or dismissal individually, the Association, as the teachers’ union, would be expected by the Labour Relations Board to take immediate steps to bring the action to a stop. Failure to do so would likely result in the Association being penalized. In the case of widespread illegal action, there is precedent for the courts to impose fines in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in addition to other administrative sanctions on the union involved.
The right to strike is a powerful tool available to unions and is very much an instrument of last resort. While the Association is proceeding to arbitration determined to achieve the best possible outcome for the current agreement, we are under no illusion that the next round of collective bargaining for the period beginning September 2020 will be easy or without conflict. It may be the case that, at some point, the members of the Association will decide that the only avenue open to them is to take strike action. In such an event, the Association would ensure that members are fully informed before proceeding intentionally, democratically and legally.
In the meantime, Association bargaining units are busy. They are undertaking local bargaining within the context of the current 2018–20 collective agreement and preparing for the round ahead. As an individual teacher, you can help by engaging in the Association’s advocacy efforts to raise government and public awareness of issues affecting teaching and learning conditions, and by actively participating in local meetings and activities around bargaining. Currently we are encouraging teachers to write a letter to their MLA through the #MyClassSizeIs campaign. You can keep on top of provincial developments by reading the ATA News and updates posted to the members-only section of the provincial website at www.teachers.ab.ca (to access secure areas of the site you will have to ensure you have updated your member profile).
Finally, it is not too early to begin to plan for an interruption in income that would result should strike action be necessary. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at firstname.lastname@example.org.