Monday, March 11, 2013

Teacher bargaining broken?

Education Minister Jeff Johnson continues to stir the pot in teacher bargaining. This morning, the Calgary Herald is reporting that Johnson is describing the current teacher bargaining structure as “broken”

The issue seems to be that (1) all 62 ATA locals are in bargaining at the same time, creating the potential for a province-wide strike, and (2) the ATA can (although almost never does) veto locally negotiated deals.

So let’s unpack this a bit.

It is true that all 62 collective ATA collective agreements are up for negotiation, creating the possibility that there could be 62 strikes/lockouts at some point (likely next fall, if negotiations fail). But how did all of these expiry dates come to line up?

Well, several years ago (in an effort to prevent work stoppages), the government signed a five-year deal affecting all locals: basically it bought labour peace. This time around, the government wasn’t interested in labour peace (despite an offer by the ATA to take increases of zero, zero, two and four percent).

So it is Johnson’s government that has created the potential for (and likelihood of) a province-wide work stoppage. Mostly because the province is too broke to buy peace again because the Tories won’t create an adequate tax structure to pay for basic things like edu-ma-cating the young’uns.

It is also true that that ATA can veto local agreements. But it has only done so twice in decades, both times when the negotiated agreement violated the law! A third case saw the local agreement ratified. Wow, how irresponsible the ATA has been!

While the ATA could potentially step in, veto all 62 agreements and trigger province-wide strikes/lockouts, this is highly unlikely. Unions don’t want strikes. And strikes forced upon members by the union are likely to be unsuccessful.

Interestingly, Johnson’s own behaviour has not been so restrained.

Last week, Jonson called off province-wide negotiations a second time, after the ATA had rejected his latest ultimatum (“I’m breaking up with you, too!”). He now requires all school boards provide signed agreements to him 10 days ahead of ratification. The only reason for this would be for him to informally veto the deal, likely by threatening to replace the school board if they ratified something he found distasteful.

So, just in case you missed the irony, Johnson complains bargaining is broken because the ATA can veto local deals they don’t like (even thought they don’t) but then gives himself the same power. And then, unable to resist the temptation of such power, Johnson has told everyone who will listen (including the school boards) that all “negotiated” agreements must meet contain increases of zero, zero, zero and two per cent.

So let’s recap.

In a rather Orwellian twist, the Minister of Education uses the word “negotiate” to mean “impose”. And then he blames teachers for a bargaining situation his government created. And he suggests the ATA (which has always used its power to veto deals responsibly) is some how putting children’s education at risk when it is, in fact, his own (mis-)adventures in province-wide bargaining and subsequent tantrums and micromanagement of school boards that is causing the problem.

Basically bargaining has turned to bullying. Anyone remember the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader turns to Lando and says “I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further"? Kind of like that, but without the groovy special effects and incest subplot (although I have my fingers crossed on the latter).

In the end, intergalactic bullying didn’t work out for the Empire. Perhaps the Darth Johnson wants to reflect upon that.

-- Bob Barnetson 

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