Securing post-2012 labour peace and education transformation on the table
Despite the occasional hiccup, the agreement between the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and the Government of Alberta in November 2007, that led to the settlement of five-year collective agreements in school jurisdictions across Alberta, has been deemed a success by teachers, trustees and provincial politicians. The question now on the horizon is what to do once that deal and all collective agreements that followed expire on August 31, 2012.
In an effort to secure continuing workforce stability and to facilitate the transformative change in education being sought by the government, Minister of Education David Hancock has invited the ATA and the Alberta School Boards Association to engage in a formal discussion about the potential for a successor framework agreement. While formal approval to proceed is still pending, the parties have provisionally agreed to undertake these discussions throughout the fall. Assuming all goes well, they could lead to the development of a draft agreement before Christmas.
Arriving at a successor agreement between the parties now may prove to be more challenging than concluding the original five-year memorandum was. To begin with, the general concept, components and structure of the 2007 agreement were the subject of ongoing discussion dating back to 2001. It was generally understood at that time that, at its core, any agreement would include provisions for transferring responsibility for the unfunded pension liability to the Government of Alberta, in return for which teachers would agree to a long-term agreement setting out salary increases.
This time, the scope of the issues that could be included in the discussion about a new successor agreement is considerably broader, and many of those potential issues are much more complex. The talks would be about the prospects for changing fundamental aspects of the education system while maintaining labour peace—they would not be about revisiting the pension agreement or extending the duration of the agreement currently in place. The government has financial issues and objectives that it will want to raise at the table. The Association will seek to preserve the gains made by teachers and improve teaching and learning conditions, and school boards would likely raise concerns about governance and financial certainty. All three parties have their own ideas about what “transformative change” is really about.
Contributing to the complexity of the upcoming negotiations would be the anticipated participation from the outset of the Alberta School Boards Association. Having a third party involved changes the dynamics of the process and expands the range of issues that will need to be addressed at the table. All three parties would need to work together to ensure that history does not repeat itself: The last time the government, the ATA and ASBA attempted to jointly conclude a provincial agreement, in the summer of 2004, things did not end well. Despite the best efforts of a mediator, talks broke down and progress toward an agreement was delayed for several more years. Failure this time around would be equally undesirable and could create conditions of financial uncertainty, policy instability and labour strife.
As well, negotiations that took place in 2007 occurred at a time when the growth of the provincial economy and projected revenues of government seemed to know no boundaries. In fact, a serious political problem for the government of the day was what to do with its rapidly accumulating surplus. These are rather more temperate times economically—a factor that will undoubtedly influence the discussions taking place at the table.
Finally, the negotiations and whatever agreement might emerge out of them would need to factor in the unique and diverse needs of school boards, teachers and schools across the province. Finding mechanisms to facilitate the common objectives of the parties while still providing opportunities for individual school boards and teacher bargaining units to address local concerns will be one more challenge. It is understood that should a framework agreement be concluded, there would be provisions allowing for a round of local collective bargaining to occur. This opportunity for local collective bargaining would provide bargaining units and employer school boards with a mechanism to address and resolve matters of concern, while still preserving labour peace.
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