From the Calgary Herald
An unexpected battle is brewing between one of the province’s most powerful unions and an NDP government that’s always been labour-friendly but is now facing severe financial straits.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association will sit down with provincial negotiators next week to set parameters under new bargaining rules that will give the province more oversight in central contract issues, including salaries.
But at the same time, two sides that were often seen as allies amid decades of provincial Tory rule will now face off under a dark economic cloud that has seen oil prices plummet for months, tens of thousands of private-sector layoffs, and dwindling government revenue.
Pundits say with the ATA’s contract set to expire this summer, the upcoming round of contract talks is shaping up to be quite uncomfortable as the New Democrats face some of their strongest political supporters at the bargaining table.
“The days of being best friends may be gone,” said Duane Bratt, chair and professor in Mount Royal University’s Department of Policy Studies.
“There are teachers that are members of the party, that are some of the NDP’s closest supporters,” said Bratt, adding that several NDP MLAs are former educators.
“What does the government do when faced with this fiscal reality? Will they think of the broader economic situation or will they think about their supporters and members of their caucus?”
With the ATA’s current four-year agreement set to expire Aug. 31, 2016, a new round of collective bargaining is expected to start in the next few weeks.
In their existing contract, teachers received a zero per cent increase for the first three years and a two per cent increase in the fourth year, beginning Sept. 1, 2015, with a one per cent lump sum payment in the final year, paid out in November 2015.
But as they enter a new round of talks, Chaldeans Mensa, associate political science professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, says teachers need to be aware of the economic reality.
“If teachers make unrealistic demands it may backfire. The public is in no mood to support that.”
“It’s difficult, because the NDP is facing two forces, the economic reality and their traditional allies. But the government knows they will have to hold the line.”
Education Minister David Eggen agrees the New Democrats and labour unions have supported each other in the past. But at the same time, he hopes both sides understand the fiscal challenges ahead.
The NDP announced earlier this week that the steep and prolonged collapse of world oil prices has doubled Alberta’s deficit projection for next year to more than $10 billion.
Union contract talks will have to reflect that reality, Eggen stressed.
“This won’t be easy. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about how we can do this.
“But we’ve been in a difficult economic circumstance since we were elected. We can see the clouds gathering.
“And we all live in this economic climate, everyone understands what that looks like.”
But ATA president Mark Ramsanker is adamant that in spite of a lack of resources, teachers are still faced with the critical, daily task of educating an increasing number of children and the system is bursting.
“Everybody keeps talking about the economic reality. But we have to balance that with the demographic reality of today’s classroom.”
Ramsanker estimates 55,000 new students have arrived in Alberta over the last five years, about 11,000 per year.
“The fact of the matter is classrooms are still very complex, and their sizes are still unmanageable.
“That’s the reality that has to be addressed.”
Under the new Bill 8, the Public Education Collective Bargaining Act, contract talks will be a three-step process starting with setting parameters around what will be negotiated at the central bargaining table versus what will be negotiated at the local level between teachers and school boards.
Once parameters are set, central bargaining begins first, followed by local bargaining by 61 school boards across the province.
Eggen said the initial central bargaining process will be good opportunity for “the funder” to make clear to the union the lack of available revenue.
Ramsanker replied the union will in turn use that opportunity to make clear the urgent needs in the classroom.