A mediator is recommending school boards give modest wage increases to Alberta’s unionized teachers as part of a new four-year contract.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is asking its 46,000 members to vote from June 5 to 8 on whether to accept the new deal.
It’s an offer that three former ATA presidents say is so underwhelming and problematic, that teachers must vote to reject it.
“I believe it fails on every possible count,” said Larry Booi, the past president who led Alberta teachers in their 2002 strike.
In a May 3, 2022, report, obtained by CBC News, mediator Lyle Kanee recommends employers give teachers a 1.25 per cent wage increase in September 2022, followed by a two per cent increase in September 2023. If teachers were to ratify the agreement before September, they would also get a 0.5 per cent increase to the salary grid.
Although inter-provincial comparisons show Alberta teachers are among the highest paid of the provinces, Alberta teachers have not had any new raises since 2015.
The mediator’s recommendations are silent on rising class sizes or teachers’ frustrations juggling more students with complex needs.
A document the ATA sent its members, obtained by CBC, says the association and the Teachers’ Employer Bargaining Association (TEBA), which represents school boards and the government, were in “complete disagreement on a resolution to these issues.”
Neither the ATA nor the provincial finance minister’s office will comment on the recommendations.
Brad LaFortune, executive director of the labour-funded group Public Interest Alberta, said the offer puts teachers in a tough position.
“There’s a lot of things that weren’t there when it comes to these really critical concerns for teachers in the classroom,” he said.
Kanee also recommends increasing substitute teachers’ daily pay by two per cent instead of giving them vacation and holiday pay.
He suggests that school boards shoulder the costs of teachers getting updated criminal record and vulnerable sector checks every five years — a new requirement of the provincial government’s Bill 85.
Teachers will also consider the offer in the wake of the government passing a bill that will cleave away the ATA’s disciplinary role. Bill 15 will create a new teaching profession commissioner, who will oversee the disciplinary process for all teachers, under the education minister’s watch.
The mediator recommends re-opening bargaining, should the government decide to charge teachers to run the new discipline system.
The legislative changes, a controversial new elementary school curriculum, and heading into often crowded classrooms during the COVID-19 have left many teachers feeling like they’re under attack, observers say.
“I think teachers are understandably angry and frustrated and exhausted,” said Jason Foster, a human resources and labour relations professor at Athabasca University.
Labour relations expert predicts a ‘grumpy ratification’
The mediator’s wage recommendations look much like deals inked earlier this year by the United Nurses of Alberta and more than 18,000 health aides, assistants and licensed practical nurses in the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE).
LaFortune says teachers are in a different position. Their wage grids, which set salaries based on the level of education and years of experience, have been frozen for longer than other workers.
For years, teachers have raised alarms about growing class sizes with more children grappling with different needs, such as learning disabilities, mental health concerns or hunger. Some teachers have fewer classroom aides than before. Many became symptom monitors and amateur contact tracers when the virus causing COVID-19 crept into their classrooms and public health was overwhelmed.
And with oil and gas prices booming, Alberta’s finances have “changed pretty wildly” since teacher bargaining began in 2020, LaFortune said.
But labour relations expert Foster said what front-line workers deserve isn’t often reflected in the contracts they’ve inked with Alberta’s government in the past several years — including under the NDP.
He suspects teachers will hold their noses and vote to accept it.
“It will be kind of a grumpy ratification,” he said. “Sometimes workers know it’s not a great deal, but they understand they can’t get anything better.”
Past presidents urge teachers to reject deal
Booi, Frank Bruseker, and Carol Henderson were successive ATA presidents from 1999 to 2013. Last week, the three of them penned an open letter to teachers, urging them to vote against the mediator’s recommendations.
The letter says the contract would lock teachers into accepting salaries that fail to keep up with inflation until August 2024, while revenues are gushing into provincial coffers.
Bruseker said he fears the language in the agreement is a “trap” that would make it appear teachers agree with legislated changes to teacher discipline and a public teacher registry.
Booi said if teachers ever want a government to improve classroom conditions, they must get class size caps written into their collective agreement.
“Parents are not happy with class sizes of 40 in high schools and a total lack of support for the high needs children and the lack of aides that they used to have,” he said. “I think what you’re going to find is a lot of public pressure to do something about these classrooms in the interest of children’s learning with some of that extra cash that they’re now bragging about.”
An offer rejection doesn’t have to prompt a strike, Booi said. After a cooling-off period, teachers could return to the bargaining table to push for a better deal, he said.
When asked if the provincial government would tell school boards to lock teachers out if they rejected the offer, a spokesperson for the finance minister said, “Of course not.”
The ATA wouldn’t comment on the past presidents’ positions, but did say the organization’s provincial executive council is recommending teachers vote in favour of the deal.
Would Alberta teachers be the highest paid in Canada again?
Comparing teacher pay across the country is complex. Although some jurisdictions, like Saskatchewan, have a uniform pay scale across the province, many other places, including Alberta, have different pay scales in each school division.
Furthermore, teachers are paid according to their level of education, and different provinces have different post-secondary education requirements to teach. Ontario and Manitoba, for example, require five years of post-secondary education, but Alberta demands four years.
In many provinces, teacher compensation varies between large, urban divisions, sparsely populated rural areas, and remote school divisions that must pay premiums to attract professionals.
Thanks to recent pay increases, Manitoba’s most experienced teachers are among the best paid of the provinces. Teachers in the three northern territories earn the highest salaries in the country.
Should Alberta teachers choose to ratify the current offer, the highest-paid Alberta teachers could be the best compensated of the 10 provinces once again.
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