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Redford government floats risky scheme to impose contract on teachers

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Jeff Johnson

Trapped in a no-deficit, no-tax-increase cage of its own devising, with few ideas and a budget looming on March 7, the government of Premier Alison Redford has floated the idea of using legislation to impose a salary cap on Alberta's teachers.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson has been shopping this brainstorm around to the province's school boards to see who salutes and who heaves rotten tomatoes.

Needless to say, the Alberta Teachers Association was not impressed. ATA President Carol Henderson expressed shock and dismay at what Johnson's been saying, warning that even running the idea up the flagpole puts the government's relationship with the province's teachers at risk.

The same kind of thing has been tried in both British Columbia and Ontario, she noted, and the results have hardly been auspicious.

In this, Henderson got it right. A certain amount of disdain for the collective bargaining process is normal nowadays among unionized professionals like teachers. But getting between them and a raise they both expect and believe they deserve is an entirely different matter.

Johnson's press secretary, meanwhile, told media in Edmonton there's been strong support for the scheme among at least some of the boards the minister has approached -- which, by the sound of it, has been most of them.

No surprise there either, since it was back to chaotic local negotiations between school boards and teachers late last year after province-wide tripartite bargaining among the ATA, the boards and the government collapsed.

So rather than shouting at each other about market principles, the value of unions and broken promises, let's just take a breath and think about what this really means in practical political terms.

Notwithstanding the inevitable angry rhetoric of people who hate unions and hate teachers, of whom there is no shortage in Alberta, the relationship between the Progressive Conservative government and the ATA has long been a very comfortable and productive one, if not quite cozy.

It probably overstates the case to call the ATA a branch of the PC Party, as has been muttered darkly from time to time in the pinker corners of Alberta's labour movement, but it can certainly said that not only have many Alberta teachers voted Conservative for years, they have done so without discomfiting their leaders overmuch, with few exceptions. More than one Tory cabinet minister has ascended from the ranks of the ATA.

However, in last spring's Alberta election, when it looked very much as if the charter-school-loving Wildrose Party was on the verge of wresting power from the PCs in the desperate final hours before April 23, teachers of all political stripes rallied to the side of the government and helped snatch its bacon from the flames.

In this -- to the bitter disappointment of the opposition parties of the left and right -- they were joined by unionized health care workers and government employees in large numbers.

So there can be no doubt that if the government, pleading poverty in the midst of oily plenty, now turns on the teachers and imposes a two- or three-year deal, it will be seen with some justice as a case of the government screwing the very people who saved its bacon.

Alberta teachers will likely respond with some kind of job action, as has been tried in Ontario by teachers dealt a similar hand by the Liberal government of outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty for much the same reasons.

To wit, they will do things like refuse to participate in extra curricular programs, and loudly fight with the government about it, lending an air of crisis to a government that needs to project an image of calm if it is to survive.

Moreover, other public sector unions -- every one of which is likely to have negotiations with the government or a public agency in the approximate time frame of this government's life -- will conclude they can no longer trust the Redford crowd.

This will ratchet up the sense of looming crisis already being amplified by the government's very public fight with the Alberta Medical Association, which Health Minister Fred Horne also seems to be of a mind to continue.

And for what? A vain attempt to win back voters who have already left the Tory party, most likely forever, to join the Wildrose ranks? A favourable editorial in the National Post?

Supporters of imposing contracts by legislation within the government -- who are not necessarily the government's best friends -- will argue that public sector unions don't command the support of their own members, at least when it comes to whom to vote for. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that there is more than a little truth to this.

But in the event, it is said here, this is not likely to work the way advocates of legislation expect. More likely, public employees will ignore the half-hearted tacit advice of their leaders and not support the government coalition in 2015, either by returning to the Alberta Liberals and the NDP or by throwing caution to the wind and voting Wildrose for a change.

So it is a sure bet that, no matter what they say for public consumption, all of Alberta's opposition parties are cheering the Tories on in this desperate enterprise. New Democrats, Liberals and Wildrosers alike stand to benefit significantly from the sense of crisis and disorder that is sure to follow such a bonehead play, and the votes that will directly come their way as a consequence of it.

Once such a policy is clear, moreover, every one of them will accuse the government of breaking another promise -- this one of stable and predictable funding in education. Again, they will be quite justified.

As has been said here before, the Redford Tories would be smarter to be mindful of whom their friends are, run a deficit and proudly boast they are protecting public programs -- all the while praying for the timely return of higher petroleum prices soon enough to accommodate their electoral schedule.

Of course, this would require them to go against an instinct for austerity and confrontation that is bred in Alberta Tory bones.

Can they put reason ahead of passion? We'll likely see on March 7, when the Budget Speech is read.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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