Carol Henderson

OK, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s bizarre attempt to bluff the province’s 35,000 unionized schoolteachers into signing a contract has failed. Now what?

One week ago, Johnson mailed the president of the Alberta Teachers Association and the Chair of the Alberta School Boards Association a rambling letter setting out the government’s latest bargaining demands in what’s turned out to be a rocky round of negotiations with the province’s teachers.

While not particularly generous, it could be argued the government’s parsimonious position wasn’t all that far from the ATA’s modest last offer — a four-year deal with no pay increase in the first three years and a 1-per-cent lump sum in the fourth versus a four-year-deal with no pay increase in the first two years and 1 per cent and 3 per cent in the final two years.

The two sides also have differences over workload issues and how to resolve them. Still, veteran labour negotiators have bridged far bigger gaps when everyone agrees to sit down and act like grownups.

However, Johnson — who according to his official Legislature biography has a background selling photocopying machines and as a “futures trading floor pit boss” — blew the idea of playing nice to smithereens when he included a threat in his letter to cut teachers’ salaries if they wouldn’t agree to his proposal by March 7, when the provincial budget is scheduled to be tabled in the Alberta Legislature.

He’d already publicly mused about using legislation to force the teachers to live with whatever sort of a deal he wants to impose on them.

Well, maybe that kind of thing works when you’re a pit boss on the notoriously chaotic futures trading arena. But in labour negotiations it’s like waving the proverbial red flag in the face of a big angry bull.

Teachers all across the province — key members of the unnatural coalition that unexpectedly re-elected Redford and her government last April — collectively blew a gasket.

Yesterday, ATA President Carol Henderson told Johnson he could drop dead, although not in quite as many words.

“Teachers do not respond well to ultimatums,” she advised a news conference where, surrounded by teachers from throughout the province, she said the ATA’s Executive Council has unanimously rejected the government’s demand.

So if Johnson and the government of Premier Alison Redford had imagined they could force a deal with teachers to be signed by the time the budget comes down in eight days, that idea’s now done like dinner.

It’s almost as if Johnson had the misapprehension teachers couldn’t add up simple sums — they teach arithmetic, for heaven’s sake — and figure out that whatever they agreed to now could have no possible impact on a budget that is already written, sent to the printers and has quite possibly already rolled off the press!

It’s hard to imagine the pandemonium of negotiations among the ATA and various school boards across the province, which is apparently what’s on the agenda now that Johnson’s bluff has been called, being anything except protracted, acrimonious and politically deeply embarrassing for the government.

And if the government steps in now and legislates any deal for the teachers, it’s almost certain to destroy the progressive coalition that came to Redford’s rescue on April 23.

So what could Johnson have been thinking when he drafted his ridiculous letter — which seems to have been specially designed to wreck one of the few areas where the Redford Government has been doing quite well, labour relations with public sector unions?

After all, the fiasco that now seems very likely is sure to make us all forget the five years of labour peace with teachers shrewdly negotiated by the government of former premier Ed Stelmach, Redford’s unlucky predecessor, who nowadays looks pretty good.

In an excellent blog post yesterday, author Dave Cournoyer suggests the whole strange episode goes back to the deep divisions within the Progressive Conservative caucus over Redford’s leadership.

Cournoyer suggests Tory caucus members who supported other leadership candidates — which would be pretty well all of them — blame teachers for joining the party and electing Redford as leader. 

“The tension is said to have led to more than a few heated arguments behind the thick wooden doors of Tory caucus meetings,” he wrote, considerably understating widespread rumours of screaming matches between the education minister and the premier. Well, she can hardly fire Johnson – the third education minister in as many years — without suffering another black eye.

So now, according to this way of thinking, disgruntled supporters of candidates such as Gary Mar, Ted Morton and Finance Minister Doug Horner are out for revenge against Alberta’s teachers. 

On the face of it, this interpretation is almost as bizarre as Johnson’s negotiating strategy. After all, while teachers may have voted for Redford’s leadership, they also voted for her government — saving many a Tory MLA’s job in April 2012. 

What’s more, they would almost certainly have done so again, had Johnson not blundered into their negotiations.

Still, as Sherlock Holmes so famously observed, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

And it’s getting so that Albertans need the assistance of a famous “consulting detective,” and not a fictional one either, to figure out what this government is up to!

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


David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...