Teachers want fair, workable collective bargaining

"All teachers want is a fair and workable model for collective bargaining. And Albertans want labour peace in their schools," said Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) President Frank Bruseker.

Bruseker’s comments followed his public presentation to the Alberta government’s Standing Policy Committee (SPC) on Education and Employment on December 12, 2005, in which he outlined the ATA’s position on the future of collective bargaining in the education sector. The specific purpose of the presentation was to address Recommendation 81 of Alberta’s Commission on Learning. The recommendation urges the government to "[c]reate a new approach to collective bargaining with four key components," including the establishment of a legislated employer bargaining association and the imposition of limitations on what can be bargained for collectively.

Although over two years have passed since the Commission handed down its final report containing this recommendation, the government is still mulling over its response.

Several months earlier, representatives of the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) appeared before the SPC in a closed session to encourage the government to adopt the recommendation and establish the ASBA as the exclusive employer representative. The ASBA would then attempt to bargain a single provincial collective agreement with the ATA. The ASBA has also called on the government to restrict the ability of teachers to raise issues such as class size, workload and hours of instruction at the bargaining table. These issues, the ASBA argues, are management prerogatives and should be under the exclusive control of the school board.

In his presentation, the ATA President pointed out that the ASBA was calling for the Alberta government to put into place the same bargaining model that proved to be disastrous when implemented in British Columbia. "If the government decides to import B.C.’s approach to bargaining by handing off bargaining to the provincial employers’ cartel and the provincial teachers’ organization, the result here will be the same as it has been in British Columbia: disrupted classrooms, provincewide labour disputes and a lasting legacy of ill will."

Bruseker dismissed the notion that a legislated employers’ bargaining cartel is needed to establish a balance between school boards and teachers, noting that the ASBA’s proposed power grab is opposed by at least 17 of the province’s school boards which, collectively, are responsible for educating about one-half of Alberta students.

"Anyone involved in the process knows that, despite the involvement of the provincial ATA and the ASBA, bargaining today is still effectively controlled by local teachers and local school trustees. While the ASBA would like to present trustees, superintendents and secretary treasurers as Little Red Riding Hoods cowering before the big bad Association wolf, the reality is that trustees, professional central office administrators and the ASBA’s own professional bargaining agents have proven themselves to be quite capable of looking after school board interests." Bruseker pointed to the fact that, in recent years, teacher salary settlements have typically run below three percent. "There is no evidence that teachers’ salaries are spinning out of control. If anything, the evidence points to an ongoing failure of school boards to secure adequate funding."

Should the provincial government be determined to change the bargaining process, the ATA presented several workable alternatives, including implementing provincial bargaining with direct government participation, or negotiating a provincial framework that would resolve key financial issues, such as salary, or even the unfunded liability of the teachers’ pension plan, while leaving local boards to bargain other issues directly with the teachers they employ. "The key to sustaining labour peace is direct involvement by the provincial government," said Bruseker. "In 1994, the province decided to take hold of public education’s purse strings; now the government needs to take a seat at the table."

The government MLAs present at the meeting appeared receptive to the ATA’s concerns and seemed to be in no rush to embrace the ASBA’s proposal. Nor were MLAs particularly interested in having the provincial government become a party to the negotiation process, as suggested by the ATA. While concerns were expressed about the existing bargaining process, there appeared to emerge a consensus that, on the whole, local collective bargaining was working and the government should be cautious about fixing something that wasn’t broken. Education Minister Zwozdesky indicated at the conclusion of the session that he was continuing to study alternatives but gave no firm timeline for bringing forward the government’s final position.

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