Why are the Redford Tories picking on Alberta teachers?

Are Alberta teachers about to become collateral damage in a Tory feud?

Education Minister Jeff Johnson dispatched a letter to the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) and the Alberta School Boards Association yesterday threatening salary cuts if a new contract is not agreed to before the provincial budget is released on March 7, 2013.

Minister Johnson’s statement was made the same day that Premier Alison Redford told the media that her government will not release an austerity-minded budget (a statement made days after Premier Redford told the media that Alberta had a spending problem).

Jeff Johnson Alberta Education Minister MLA

Jeff Johnson

Whether or not an agreement is reached before the provincial budget is tabled in ten days would seem irrelevant considering the budget documents have likely already been shipped to the printers.

Yesterday’s development follows Minister Johnson’s musings earlier this month that he could force an agreement on teachers through provincial legislation.

Alberta may be known for its conservative politics, but it has been a sea of labour calm compared recently to provinces like Ontario and British Columbia. It would make little sense for the Redford Tories to unnecessarily splash tidal waves through its relationship with Alberta’s teachers.

New to the job this year, Minister Johnson may just be confused. He is the Tory government’s third education minister in less than three years to oversee the same provincial negotiations with Alberta teachers, following in the steps of the conciliatory Dave Hancock and the more aggressive Thomas Lukaszuk.

Before the province-wide negotiations came to an abrupt end in November 2012, the ATA had proposed a four-year deal that would freeze teachers’ salaries for two years and implement increases in the final two years to catch up with inflation. The ATA proposal would have ensured continued labour peace and focused on long-standing issues surrounding workload and non-instructional volunteer and supervision roles filled by teachers.

After negotiations at the provincial level stalled in November 2012, teachers turned to school boards to continue contract talks at the local level. School boards have limited autonomy in local decision making and it has always been clear that the provincial government has the ultimate control over funding.

Why would the government pick a fight with Alberta teachers when their union has presented fair and reasonable positions at the bargaining table?

Numerous sources close to the Tory government say that tension and internal politics within the Tory caucus are fuelling animosity towards Alberta’s teachers. Some Tory MLAs, who supported other leadership candidates, are said to blame the ATA for Premier Redford’s victory in the 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership contest. The tension is said to have  led to more than a few heated arguments behind the thick wooden doors of Tory caucus meetings.

While the ATA openly encouraged teachers to participate in the Tory leadership contest, claims that teachers stole the vote for Ms. Redford are just plain silly.

Although Premier Redford led her party to a majority victory in the 2012 election, it is important to note that she had the support of only one MLA when she first entered the Tory leadership contest (former Calgary-Hays MLA Art Johnston, who was twice unable to win a party nomination in 2012).

If the speculation is true, then Alberta’s teachers could become collateral damage in a Tory feud.

UPDATE: The Alberta Teachers’ Association provincial executive council have voted unanimously to reject Minister Johnson’s offer.