What lies ahead for Bargaining?

May 21, 2010
Sharon Vogrinetz

Teachers’ five-year agreement comes due in 2012

When a historic agreement was signed in November 2007 between the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the government, it resulted in two things. First, it transferred complete responsibility for funding the more than $6 billion pension unfunded liability (UFL) for pre-1992 service from teachers to the Alberta government. Second, it produced five years of labour peace when the Association signed collective agreements with all 62 school boards—agreements that will expire on August 31, 2012. As a result, for the first time, all bargaining units will be negotiating at the same time. What will this look like?

What are the possibilities and what needs to be done?

Currently, each of the 62 school boards bargains with Association committees either locally or with the services of a Representative of the Bargaining Agent (RBA), who works closely with the local’s Economic Policy Committee (EPC). This requires a high level of participation from each bargaining unit, as there needs to be 10 to 20 teachers on the EPC who are prepared and ready to lead the process.

EPC members assist and advise the three to five most experienced local members who make up the Negotiating Sub-Committee (NSC), the group that actually carries out negotiations. With about 50 per cent of teachers eligible to retire between the last round of negotiations (December 2007–January 2008) and the commencement of the next round in the spring of 2012, the challenge is to encourage more teachers to become involved with their local’s EPC. Retiring experienced negotiators must be replaced with new ones, who have less experience but need opportunities to gain skills and practice.

Possibility #1: Maintain the status quo

One possibility for bargaining in 2012 is the status quo. The first collective agreements can be formally opened as early as January 3, 2012, and the last agreements on June 30, 2012. Preparing to open agreements requires Economic Policy Committees to survey members, to develop opening proposals and to ratify agreements at general meetings. That is a great deal of activity to cram into the fall of 2011. Your EPC cannot wait until September 2011 to start planning. If your EPC has not already been working with an ATA Teacher Welfare Staff advisor on data collection, member education and skill building for negotiations, then the likelihood that your bargaining unit will be able to achieve a sophisticated settlement is already compromised.

Possibility #2: Amalgamate school boards

Another possibility is that the government could amalgamate school boards, as they did with regional health boards. If this were to happen, teachers could see the formation of fewer than a dozen superboards. Teachers and EPCs would then be faced with blending seven to ten agreements into one. Amalgamation could drag out the process to avoid a perfect storm, whereby every teacher in Alberta would be poised to take strike action at the same time. A provincewide strike would not be possible by September 1, 2012, because negotiations take time, as do applying for any taking strike votes. In any event, the Association seeks labour peace, not strikes.

Possibility #3: a second provincial agreement

Yet another scenario would be a second provincial agreement. The provincial government would have to be willing to discuss issues of importance to teachers. In 2007, teachers had the pension UFL as the motivating factor. What issue might capture teachers’ interest in 2012? And if this issue requires additional funding for school jurisdictions, how can we ensure that funding is delivered? As we discovered in 2007, the government cannot commit to a specific funding level in writing; it can only commit to supporting a position.

In 2007, the provincial agreement dealt only with salary, other rates of pay and the preservation of existing hours of work language. Bargaining units that had engaged in formal negotiations with their employers before and during the provincial negotiations achieved significant increases in benefit contributions and leaves. Bargaining units that delayed the process were left without enough time to work through local issues once the provincial agreement was announced on November 15, 2007. Bargaining had to be wrapped up 68 days prior to the deadline of January 31, 2008; otherwise, the entire pension deal would have been scuttled.

The concept is straightforward: since the province holds the purse strings, it is essential to involve it in discussion about funding levels. Outside of the elements of a provincial agreement, remaining matters would be negotiated locally.

Possibility #4: a provincial framework agreement

A different provincially led structure could be a framework agreement. Ontario has negotiated two successive optional provincial frameworks with its teacher organizations. The provincial agreements promised funding and other supports provided that local agreements were settled within a specific time. These carrots included funding for salaries, as well as guaranteed increases to the minimum amount of preparation time allotted to teachers. Those bargaining units that succeeded in finishing negotiations in time received the funding—those that did not received reduced funding. The framework agreement had sufficient flexibility to allow local negotiators to address local issues.

Possibility #5: change the way teachers bargain

The Alberta government could amend legislation to change the way teachers bargain. One change might be to mandate provincial bargaining with a single agreement. This could be more or less challenging depending on who is at the table. If the government opts for the British Columbia model, where the teachers’ association bargains with an employers’ association, life could get interesting. Inserting a third party with no real authority into the process would insulate the provincial government, which is the real fiscal decision maker. Teachers would face substantial and prolonged frustration and uncertainty. When this particular bargaining model was imposed in B.C. in the mid-1990s, the two parties agreed on only one clause after more than 120 meetings! They agreed that the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) represents teachers and the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) represents the employing boards. Ultimately, the provincial government had to legislate a settlement, which merely overlaid a salary increase onto each of the existing local agreements. More than 15 years later, there is still no single provincial agreement, nor has there ever been an actual negotiated settlement between BCTF and BCPSEA. Each settlement required provincial intervention.

Amalgamating collective agreements is difficult. Those of you who were teaching in the 1990s probably remember the difficulty aligning different clauses, different needs and different practices, and the most complicated amalgamation involved only five agreements. Joining 62 into one single agreement would be exponentially more difficult. In addition, the bargaining structure would make labour peace an impossible challenge.

Wanted: motivated leaders

At this time, it is important that locals revitalize and rejuvenate their Economic Policy Committees. Whatever bargaining looks like in 2012, each region will need experienced, motivated leaders to bargain locally, whether for an entire collective agreement or portion thereof. Alternatively, teachers will need to be recruited and trained to take the lead on representing teachers’ needs. In any case, it is vital that each local EPC be in a position to ensure timely communication flows between local and provincial leaders and the teachers they represent.

Sharon Vogrinetz is the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s coordinator of Teacher Welfare.