Alberta could be poised for a period of labour strife as both the province’s doctors and teachers are turning up the heat on the Progressive Conservative to settle outstanding contracts.
The teachers have even requested the personal intervention of Premier Alison Redford, who wooed teachers with more education funding as a platform of her leadership bid, then bought doctors’ peace with an interim deal before the spring election.
On Friday, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, which represents about 42,000 teachers, suddenly announced that talks with the government and the school boards collapsed despite negotiations dating back to July. The teachers have been without an agreement since September.
Carol Henderson, the association’s president, has formally submitted a four-year contract offer to the premier’s office that would begin with a two-year wage freeze, followed by a 1 and 3 per cent salary hike in the third- and fourth-years. It would also place limits on salary grids and cap workloads not related to teaching. She said the offer was rejected by the education minister
“I don’t believe what we are asking for is unreasonable,” Ms. Henderson told reporters. “In fact, I believe it’s very reasonable.”
She wants the premier to step in and respond by Monday. Ms. Redford did not address the issue, but Education Minister Jeff Johnson reacted swiftly.
“I’m surprised at the announcement,” he told reporters, “I’m disappointed and a little bit shocked,”
He said the main issues are workload, especially in small rural schools with limited staff where a cap on hours could mean closures, as well as keeping the door open to legislative change in order to keep up developments in the education sector.
“Whatever we’re going to sign is going to be good for kids and not lock our education model into what it used to be,” Mr. Johnson said.
Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, which represents 62 public, separate and public school boards across the province, said she was “caught off guard” by the teachers’ announcement. She said the association is ready to revert to local contract bargaining – school board by school board, which had been done in Alberta for years – if that’s what it takes to find labour peace.
“We have no plans for any job action,” said Ms. Henderson, adding that Alberta’s teachers are the best paid in the country, not including the territories.
Meanwhile the Tory government continues to work on a deal with the province’s 7,200 doctors.
Two weeks ago, the province attempted to force a $463-million deal on the doctors, after negotiations stalled despite almost 20 months of talks.
It would have meant an overall raise – cost-of-living adjustments over the next three years, as well as a lump-sum payment of 2.5 per cent of the previous year’s billings. It would have run through 2016.
But the Alberta Medical Association responded with a letter urging Health Minister Fred Horne to resume talks or call in an arbitrator. This week, the province pulled back the offer in order to head back to the bargaining table, potentially aided by an outside facilitator.
AMA president Dr. Michael Giuffre said both sides thought it was in the best interests of patients, doctors and Albertans to come to an agreement.
The parties emerged unclear about how long discussions would continue. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that Alberta’s family physicians and specialists are, on average, Canada’s best paid, at nearly 30 per cent above the national average.