Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Teacher bargaining starting to stall?

Teacher bargaining is again in the news, with Minister of Education Thomas Lukaszuk indicating he would like a new contract signed sooner rather than later so he can make a budget-ask of Treasury Board, presumably to cover the costs associated with the deal(s). The current contract expires August 31.
"I need to know what the cost of education will be so that I can make that ask to the Treasury Board," Lukaszuk said. "So, the sooner they reach a deal, the easier it will be for me to still acquire those dollars from the Treasury Board."

It is hard to know what to make of this statement. Lukaszuk likes press coverage, so he may just be talking. But my guess is that bargaining has hit a significant roadblock and he is trying to get it finished before the provincial election is called.

Earlier this month, Lukaszuk retained two lawyers to assist the Alberta Teachers’ Associations and the Alberta School Boards Association to bring the talks (started last fall) to a conclusion. This sort of intervention is often indicative of bargaining beginning to stall. The Minister’s statement can also be read as indicative of bargaining reaching impasse.

This could be politically problematic for the government. An election is expected in March or April. Attracting the votes of teachers’ and their supports could be important in ensuring the Redford government can hold off the Wildrose and retain seats in southern Alberta. Bargaining impasse may incline teachers to withhold electoral support.

Impasse also creates an issue that the Wildrose can exploit. The Wildrose has previously suggested stripping teachers of the right to strike. This is not a discussion the Conservatives can profit from. If Redford refuses to strip teachers of the right to strike (with the spectre of a strike looming), the Wild Rose will draw off hawkish PC votes. If the Conservatives agree to strip teachers of the right to strike to nail down their right flank, they will lose votes from centrist supporters.

This may explain why Lukaszuk is laying the groundwork to blame the parties (not the government) if bargaining fails. Consider this statement:
"I have heard very loud and clear from school boards, from parents, from teachers, that they want long-term, predictable and sustainable funding," Lukaszuk said.

"Well, if I am to deliver on that undertaking, that will mean that I need to know how much the delivery of education will cost."

This is, clearly, a bit of theatrics. It is rare for contractual negotiations to be finished six months before the expiration of a contract. Employers are always forced to guess at what labour will cost in the future. And Alberta budgets are more of a political exercise than a financial one; the government can always build in a cushion or make adjustments later.

Further, the idea that the ATA and ASBA will conclude a long-term agreement with clear financial terms is hard to swallow given Alberta’s boom-bust economy. No one knows what a reasonable settlement will be in three years or five years, which is why the last teachers’ contract indexed pay to the cost of living. I have difficulty believing that teachers would ratify a long-term deal unless the cost-of-living adjustment was either indexed or subject to a wage re-opener.

What this statement does do is pressurize the parties to settle by blaming them for any future funding shortfall or instability because, apparently, a multi-billion dollar organization like the province unable to cope with modest uncertainty in its budget.

“The money might not be there if you don’t settle at a politically convenient time” and “voters—it is not our fault” are the messages the Minister is sending.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

  1. Insight Into Government reported Friday that teacher bargaining had indeed stalled on Tuesday evening. The Journal has another article today: