After province-wide talks collapsed two weeks ago, Alberta’s government is now negotiating its teacher contracts individually with each of its 62 school boards. In other provinces, such breakdowns have led to strikes. But, in Alberta, the main issue isn’t pay – it’s the demands of online learning, special needs and English-as-a-second-language students created by a booming, fast-changing province. The union wants hard caps on “assignable time” to preserve teachers’ work-life balance; Education Minister Jeff Johnson says that would “lock our education model into what it used to be.” The Globe and Mail spoke with Alberta Teachers Association president Carol Henderson.
Q: You’re down to negotiating locally. Ontario teachers were in the same position last winter and now they’re out striking in the streets. Are you going to be striking in a year?
A: We hope not. Our goal is to get 62 collective agreements and keep teachers in the classroom and kids in the schools. So that’s our goal. We’re hoping that it doesn’t break down, but you never can be sure.
Q: How can it possibly be easier to get 62 individual agreements than one big agreement?
A: It’s what we’ve done in the past. We’ve only had one provincial agreement and that expired August 31. It’s nothing new for us. What I believe though, is the Premier and the Minister missed an enormous opportunity to get cost certainty, which they wanted, and to get labour peace for four years, which they wanted. And teachers would take two zeroes in [raises] for the next two years, for improved student learning.
Q: You mention two zeroes. What role is salary playing in this? Alberta teachers are the highest paid among provinces. The grid stops at about $100,000, and there have been steep increases until now. Why walk away?
A: We are the highest paid. But so is everybody in Alberta. The doctors and the nurses and the engineers and the plumbers and the electricians – it’s all about 20 per cent higher than anywhere else in the country. So if there’s an Alberta advantage, why wouldn’t the teachers enjoy that as well?
Q: You mention the sticking point of a cap. Where does a teacher’s job start and end, and why is the cap such a sticking point?
A: We asked them to look into [caps], but they weren’t interested in doing that. What people are more and more concerned about now is the top-down professional development, the more and more supervision, the more and more requirements for technology and online reporting. Our government would like to go to any time, any place, any pace education – and that will mean a lot more work for teachers.
Q: Like Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty, Premier Alison Redford was at least casting herself as a friend of teachers. That support helped her win her leadership, and the spring election.
A: I think it did. We’re non-partisan. But we believe a lot of our teachers did support Premier Redford in the leadership and in the election.
Q: What is the state of that relationship now? Is Alison Redford a teachers’ Premier?
A: Well, that’s yet to be seen, right? We have the richest province in Canada ... but unfortunately, we have a Conservative government and we have a very right-wing opposition. And they don’t believe in taxation. They don’t look at the revenue side of the budget ... So we believe – I mean I believe – we need to look at the revenue side, we need to look at fair taxation, we need to get rid of the flat tax and look at a progressive tax, and maybe we need to look at the royalty structure. There are ways of looking at revenue that our government is not doing.
Q: A progressive tax would mean teachers pay more.
A: That would be fine. I don’t hear teachers complaining about paying taxes. We believe in social safety nets and we believe in the work of government, and we’re willing to pay for it.
Q: Do you have any plan to withdraw extracurricular activities at this stage, the way teachers have in Ontario?
A: I would say no ... right now, that’s not on the horizon.
Q: How does this compare to the battle a decade ago? That ended up being a strike, with students left in the lurch.
A: I don’t think it’s the same. This isn’t 2002. And in 2002 we did have the support of parents. Parents recognized that 34 children in a Grade 1 classroom was too many. There were too many children falling through the cracks because they had special needs and there were no supports – there still aren’t, by the way. We had more and more students coming in with no English language skills, and they were falling through. And I think parents recognized and realized it’s not right. So we did have parent support on that one.
Q: Do you think you have it now?
A: Well, we haven’t really asked for it. ... I think they’re puzzled, so we have to do some education with the parents. But for right now, I think they’re kind of taking us at our word, and our word is we’re going to try and get collective agreements in 62 jurisdictions.
This interview has been edited and condensed.