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What happens if Alberta’s teachers reject the deal their union’s just negotiated with the province? 

Nobody knows the answer to that one, but it might be worth thinking about. Because it could happen! 

As a teacher who reads this blog, commenting on a post from last month, observed yesterday of the tentative agreement between the Alberta Teachers Association and the government, “our provincial executive has gone behind our back again, negotiating in secret with the province and pretending that all our negotiating efforts should be with the school boards.”

“And the amazing deal they recommend we accept?” asks “Paddy O’Gogue” in his or her St. Patrick’s Day message. A three-year pay freeze (counting the year since negotiations started), followed by a 2-per-cent increase in 2015 plus a 1-per-cent one-time, off-the-grid, lump-sum payment. 

In return, “Paddy” said, “we’ll get a survey on workload (again) which will report that teachers’ workload could be significantly reduced by not surveying teachers on workload every 48 seconds.” Alberta teachers, he or she concluded, “are apoplectic alright” — but not necessarily just with the government.

Well, “Paddy” is just one person — but you can count on it that there are a lot more teachers out there who feel much the same way.

Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomson also got it right when he said the biggest winner in the deal revealed last Thursday evening is Premier Alison Redford. 

“The deal buys her four years of labour peace with teachers who have been among her most ardent supporters both in her 2011 leadership bid and the 2012 provincial election,” Thomson wrote. “Significantly, the deal lasts until September 2016, long after the next provincial election (legislatively scheduled for the spring of that year).”

The deal also saves Education Minister Jeff Johnson, who up until now seemed to be mishandling the negotiations, from being seen with a generous helping of egg on his face.

The ATA is also in the odd — some would say conflicted — position of being not just a teachers’ union, but a teachers’ professional association. The union, as is right and proper, looks after the interests of teachers. The professional association, as is also quite proper, looks after the interests of the public. 

But can one organization do both jobs? Well, the ATA — which likes things the way they are — would say yes, of course. Others might respectfully disagree — and point out that there’s an obvious reason medical doctors, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, lawyers and other professionals separate these functions.

As Thomson notes, the deal signed between the ATA and the government also ensures that that uncomfortable arrangement will continue for the next four years. “The ATA jealously guards its unique position as both a union that negotiates contracts and an association that regulates the teaching profession,” he wrote. “The ATA can rest easy from its perennial fear — at least for the next four years — that the government is out to bust the union, er, association.”

There are some who might argue that the ATA was not looking out for the needs of its members when it looked out for the preservation of its empire.

In negotiations with the government, at the very least the ATA gave up a percentage of pay increase in return for the comfort letter that allows it to keep its dual role — and that may ensure it can’t really fulfill either job properly.

A division of regulatory and negotiating powers is why Albertans can have confidence in the medical profession. They can count on the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta to make sure doctors are doing their jobs properly. Alberta doctors can trust the Alberta Medical Association to do its best to look after their economic interests.

But the joint role of the ATA suits the government. The public may see a reduction in the effectiveness of regulation of the teaching profession, but the effectiveness of the ATA as a union is also hobbled, which does no harm to the government at bargaining time.

Separating the roles would be in the interest of voters — who could be confident the body that regulated teachers was working in the public’s interest, including the young members of the public who attend public and Catholic schools in Alberta.

Separating the roles would also be in the interest of teachers — who would be able to negotiate better collective agreements with higher pay, as they deserve as some of the most important professionals in our society.

But the status quo serves both the government and the ATA very nicely, thank you very much.

In his column, Thomson suggests the deal with the ATA will also help Redford’s Progressive Conservative government keep a lid on its negotiations with other unionized professionals in health care and government services.

Anything’s possible, I suppose, but this seems unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, the government and its employer surrogates have nothing like the comfort letter to offer other unions. Second, of course, real unions look out for their members.

The government also needs to worry about what voters will make of their big success with the ATA if rank-and-file teachers say “Hell No!” and send their negotiators back to the bargaining table.

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...