Monday, January 7, 2013

Government intervention in teacher bargaining?

The Calgary Herald ran an interesting story over the weekend about teacher bargaining. A second effort at achieving a province-wide contract with teachers (whose contracts expired at the end of August) failed this fall. Teachers offered a mix of pay freezes and low increases over four years but wanted significant gains in working conditions. When these weren’t forthcoming from the government (in theory because they might hose rural small school boards), negotiations devolved back down to individual school boards and locals of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA).

On December 19, Education Minister Jeff Johnson set a letter to school boards. I cannot find a copy of that letter anywhere on the GOA website or online (maybe someone wants to help me out?). According to the Herald, Johnson told School boards that, when they sign a deal, he wants details of the deal at least 10 days before they ratify it, including the costs and how it will be funded.

While the government likely needs information about the cost of any deal once it is ratified, demanding it before the deal is ratified and demanding details about how it will be funded is something of a strange request. Aren’t local school boards elected bodies able to enter into binding contracts?

This may be some messaging designed to make school boards think twice about signing a deal they cannot afford in the expectation that the government will bail them out to avoid the political fallout from teacher layoffs and school closures.

Yet the lead time required (10 days before ratification) hints at that the government is not just messaging. Rather, it suggests that the government may intervene in school board ratification processes. Why else would the government need 10 days of lead time?

This kind of micromanagement is fairly typical of the Alberta government and reflects that, by taking away school boards’ ability to tax back in the 1990s, the real employer of teachers is the government. The sham of “independent” school board bargaining is simply a political ploy to deflect blowback when the government’s budgetting causes distress.

The government’s explanation for this demand is: 
“(The minister) just wants to make sure that he’s aware as boards move forward in their negotiations, because one agreement could have an impact on every agreement in the province,” education department spokeswoman Leanne Niblock said.
This explanation rings false. Dispute resolution in education is by strike/lockout so the settlements in one school district have little impact on the settlements in the next… unless the parties somehow end up at arbitration, where an arbitrator will look at comparable agreements to scope out a reasonable settlement.

School boards and the ATA could end up at arbitration if they agreed to do so. This is unlikely but not an impossible outcome—an arbitrated settlement allows both the ATA and the school board to blame the arbitrator for the settlement. And, if the settlement is beyond the capacity of the school board to fund, it allows the board some leverage with the government.

The other way school boards and the ATA could end up at arbitration is if the government enacts back-to-work legislation, thereby forcing strikes and lockouts to arbitration. The government did this in 2002 following a large strike that created a political (rather than an educational) emergency. The resulting awards favoured teachers and the government took a lot of heat when it balked at funding them.

My sense is that Johnson’s letter is meant to influence local bargaining by heightening the pressure on school boards to settle within their means. It is also a signal that the government will intervene to sink agreements signed by school boards (some of whom have cash in the bank and might make a rich agreement to avoid the political emergency of a teacher strike) that might skew provincial settlements upwards.

Admittedly, reading government intentions from press releases is a tricky business. It is easy to see a conspiracy where we might just have a rookie minister reacting to the embarrassment of the ATA walking away from a provincial deal and the minister’s PR flak trying to cover the minister’s ass when the media comes calling. Yet this move by the government is pretty consistent with the government’s history of intervening in collective bargaining to minimize settlements and avoid the political consequences associated with labour disputes.

-- Bob Barnetson