Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Johnson muses legislating Alberta teacher contracts

As predicted, the Alberta government is now publicly mooting legislating public-sector contracts, at least for teachers. According to Metro News, Education Minister Jeff Johnson has queried school boards about whether they’d prefer if the province legislated a teacher contract rather than engage in 62 local negotiations.

Not surprisingly, some Boards would be happy to have the province resolve bargaining for them.
Johnson’s press secretary Kim Capstick said Sunday the ministry had received “mixed” support among boards questioned about a legislated deal, with some openly advocating for the move as a way to remove any threat of labour unrest.
This willingness by some Boards to let the province “negotiate” may reflect that the province already controls school board budgets. School boards must then negotiate without really any flexibility in what they can offer. And when the poop hits the fan, the school board ends up wearing at least some of it. Why not hand that off to the province if money is tight?

Local negotiations started again in late autumn after province-wide talks broke down when the Minister declined the teachers’ offer of two years of salary freezes.  Strange that the government would take a pass on a pretty good deal freely offered and then start musing about legislating a much more politically costly deal only months later. This seemingly about-face is, however, consistent with the crisis-management approach the Redford government appears to have adopted.

And, of course, we don’t know what kind of deal Johnson might legislate. Ontario froze teacher salaries in September. Since Johnson turned down a wage-freeze in the fall and the province’s financial woes appear to have gotten worse in the interim, legislation might include a wage rollback.

It is an open question whether a legislated deal would survive constitutional challenge. If the freedom of association protections of the charter protect the right to some form of meaningful collective bargaining, legislating deals in lieu of bargaining will require Alberta to meet some stringent tests for the legislation to stand.

Of course Johnson could just be trying to soften up teachers (and other public-sector workers) to accept freezes or small rollbacks voluntarily. My sense is that there is still no appetite in the public-sector for such cuts.

-- Bob Barnetson

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