Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Government bargaining directly with teachers?

Minister of Education Jeff Johnson was on the radio this morning, chatting about the ATA’s rejection of his latest offer for a province-wide deal.  One of the more interesting things he said was that the ATA’s positions on instructional caps differ from what he’s “hearing from teachers on the ground”. That is to say, he is suggesting that teachers want something different from their union. Johnson’s knowledge of what teachers want may stem from an email he sent to individual teachers a few weeks back.

This question of who knows best what teachers want raises the issue of just who is negotiating with whom in what is frankly a completely mess. The ATA is the bargaining agent (acting through its various locals). Typically, the union articulates its members’ demands to the employer, generally after a period of (often acrimonious) intra-organizational bargaining among its members. 

The employers are the 62 school boards. That said, the school boards are beholden to the government and apparently have to get the government’s okay on any contract they sign, so the whole process is a bit of a sham. The true employer (luring just off stage) is the provincial government. Periodically, the government jumps back onto the stage, with several attempts to get a province-wide deal. Or by making a province-wide offer or threats of imposing a deal with wage rollbacks and salary freezes (cue olde time villainous music).

This, of course, muddies the waters. The school boards (quite understandably) are happy to sit back and watch while the government pressures the ATA to knuckle under. And local bargaining stalls. Which is, of course, the kind of thing that causes workers to get pissed off and strike—which is the outcome Johnson explicitly says the government does not want. So you’d think he’d want to stop running his mouth.

Coming back to the question of who negotiates with whom, labour laws typically preclude employers from interacting directly with union members. There are two reasons for this. First, employers bargaining directly with union members is an age-old way for employers to undermine the power of the union by playing groups of workers in a bargaining unit off against one another. We certainly see the government attempting to do that here by suggesting that the ATA is not representing what (some of) the teachers want.

Second, allowing the union to voice the demands of its members brings a degree of coherence to the bargaining table: the union can tell the employer what it is going to take to get a deal and the employer can then respond (or not). Johnson (the sometimes employer) purporting to have a kitchen cabinet of teachers “on the ground” telling him what they want is, in fact, creating a situation where no deal will ever be possible.

The reason for this is that it is hard for an employer and a union to come to an agreement they can both get ratified by a majority of their principals. Getting a deal which satisfies everyone (i.e., generates consensus among teachers on the ground) is impossible. If Johnson is now bargaining directly with individual teachers, he’ll have to please both those who want instructional caps and those want smaller classes sizes.

And then he’ll have to please those who will want every Friday off and clothing allowances and extra support staff and monkeys for their science class—the list of member demands is usually pretty incoherent and full of contradictions during the intraorganizational bargaining stage. This is why unions articulate a single position—everybody (including employers) benefits from this.

When unions aren’t allowed to generate a clear bargaining position because the employer is interacting directly with the members, bargaining fails. This basic dynamic explains (for the most part) why we have the collective bargaining laws and structures we do—they work and have an internal logic to them (even though that logic is not necessarily readily apparent).

It is unclear of Johnson doesn’t know what he is doing, or is getting really bad advice, or is intentionally trying to drive local bargaining onto the rocks to justify back-to-work legislation. In any event, if two-and-half-years of province-wide bargaining didn’t come up with a deal, then likely there is no province-wide deal to be had. So Johnson needs to butt out and let the employers sort it out with the locals—this being how collective bargaining works under the laws his government enacted.

-- Bob Barnetson

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