By introducing a new bi-level model for achieving teacher collective agreements, the New Democratic government is attempting to address a structural problem that has frustrated bargaining in the education sector for more than two decades.
In 1994, the Ralph Klein government restructured education, reducing the number of school boards while effectively eliminating their capacity to generate their own revenue. Prior to 1994, boards relied on funds raised from taxes that they imposed on real property and industrial infrastructure within their boundaries. Under this system, a school board could raise additional revenue by increasing the tax rate.
However, because the value of the property base and industrial infrastructure varied considerably from board to board, this system created great disparities in the funds available to boards. This difference was only partially compensated for by additional grants from the province.
All this changed when the province took over the collection of education property and industrial infrastructure taxes. The resulting revenue was pooled and supplemented with funds from the province’s general revenues and the total distributed primarily on a per-student basis to each board. While the policy created equitable funding for school boards, it also meant that, in practice, the boards no longer had the ability to raise their own revenue. The legislation included a provision allowing a board to impose a tax of up to three per cent on residential property for a maximum of three years, but this has to be approved in a referendum run concurrently with board elections. There have been two such attempts to impose a supplemental levy, but both failed to achieve the support of a majority of voters.
With school boards no longer controlling their revenues, the pool of money available to fund teachers’ salaries, and hence the upper range of teacher salary increases that could be achieved by collective bargaining, was effectively determined by the province. In 1995, the provincial government cut funding to school boards by five per cent, which ultimately forced teachers across the province to negotiate collective agreements that also cut salaries by five per cent.
In the years that followed, continued provincial underfunding of school boards, and the enveloping of funds, restricted the funds available for teacher salary increases, with the result that, despite the best efforts of local bargainers, teacher salary increases remained behind both inflation and the increases being achieved by Albertans employed in other sectors.
The imposition of salary constraints, along with declining classroom conditions caused by continuing underfunding, led the Association in 2001/2 to adopt provincially co-ordinated local collective bargaining. This ultimately led to a provincewide strike in February of 2002 that saw a third of Alberta’s teachers out of the classroom for up to 13 days. The strike came to an end with the passage of the Education Services Settlement Act (ESSA), which imposed binding arbitration on all boards and bargaining units while also stripping from existing collective agreements provisions limiting class sizes and hours of instruction.
ESSA created what amounted to a provincewide process to determine collective agreements. Because the six awards handed down by arbitrator David Jones were very similar, it became clear what the outcome of arbitration would be for any remaining boards and bargaining units. With the writing on the wall, collective agreements consistent with the arbitration awards were concluded across the rest of the province. The net effect of ESSA was the insertion into local agreements of substantially similar provisions determined through a provincial process — in essence a form of provincial bi-level bargaining.
The negative effect of having the province control school board budgets soon became apparent when the province failed to cover the cost to boards of the agreements that emerged from the ESSA process it had imposed: over the next two years, at least 800 teaching positions were lost as boards attempted to balance budgets.
Recognizing the structural dysfunction, teachers began to advocate for a bi-level bargaining approach that would directly engage government in the bargaining process so that it would be forced to accept responsibility for funding the outcome of that process. At the 2002 Annual Representative Assembly, a resolution passed that explicitly set out the Association’s expectations:
5.A.51 The Alberta Teachers’ Association supports a collective bargaining framework for its members wherein
1. matters acceptable to the Association are negotiated at a central table between the Association representing its members and the Government of Alberta as financier of public education,
2. matters acceptable to the Association are negotiated in separate collective agreements between the Association and each employing school jurisdiction,
3. provisions governing teacher employment contained within the School Act are retained in that Act and
4. provisions of the Labour Relations Code and the Employment Standards Code continue to apply to teachers.
The resolution was revisited in 2005, 2010 and 2011 and was entrenched as a long-term policy objective of the Association.
So even while a round of local collective bargaining was underway following the 2004 expiry of the arbitrated agreements, the province, school boards and Association were exploring alternative approaches to bargaining that would form the perspective of school boards and the Association, secure adequate funding from government and, from the perspective of government, guarantee labour peace in the education sector.
After several false starts, with the rise of Ed Stelmach to the premiership, government and teachers, without the participation of the Alberta School Boards Association, concluded a five-year agreement under which the government took responsibility for the unfunded liability of the teachers’ pension plan while teachers consented to an initial salary increase of three per cent with subsequent salary increases in the last four years of the agreement being linked to increases in the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings. The agreement provided for a limited set of local issues to be bargained locally, effectively introducing ad hoc two-tier bargaining.
The 2007 agreement ended in 2013 and, without an alternative structure in place, the Association again reverted to local collective bargaining. The political circumstances, however, had changed considerably with Stelmach replaced by Alison Redford and the appointment of Jeff Johnson as minister of education. The minister exercised his power by directing school boards to freeze teacher salaries and to submit for prior approval any collective agreements they might conclude with their bargaining units.
Having effectively sabotaged any prospects for local collective bargaining and threatening the imposition of draconian legislation, the minister forced the Association to reluctantly recommend to members a framework agreement that had been concluded with government under considerable duress, an agreement that was subsequently incorporated into the Assurance for Students Act that will continue to be in place until Aug. 31, 2016.
In the 15 years that have passed since 2001, collective agreements that were the result of fully unfettered local collective bargaining have been in place for only three years. For all the remaining years, teachers’ salaries and conditions of employment have been determined by a combination of externally imposed arbitration, ad hoc bi-level bargaining and legislative fiat.
While the final structure and operation of the processes established by Bill 8 remain to be developed, the government’s decision to take an upfront role in teacher bargaining as befits its function as the funder of public education is long overdue and welcome. ❚