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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 5, March 2008

Alberta teachers’ historic agreement clears last hurdle

By Murray Dobbin

The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) has come to a far-reaching agreement with the Conservative government involving the teachers’ pension fund and a five-year agreement that includes pay increases and a commitment to reduce class sizes.

The agreement demonstrates that, given good will on both sides, teachers’ unions can come to good agreements with even the most conservative governments. "It is worth noting that Premier Campbell often holds Alberta up as a model for BC to follow--and ‘partners’ with that province on a range of issues," said BCTF President Irene Lanzinger. "It would be gratifying to see the BC government emulate Alberta in developing a relationship of mutual respect with BC teachers. That’s the only way real progress is made on education issues."

The centre piece of the agreement is the resolution of a long-standing irritant between the government and the ATA--an unfunded liability of $2.1 billion in the ATA pension plan. The agreement provides for the provincial government to assume full responsibility for funding the pre-1992, unfunded liability. The net result will be a continuing reduction in pension contributions for teachers averaging 3.1% of salary.

The five-year agreement also involves a 3% salary increase for 2007-08 and yearly increases equal to the increase in the average Alberta weekly earnings in the subsequent four years of the deal.

Equally important, however, is the government’s commitment to the class-size reduction initiative negotiated with the ATA. As reported in the ATA News, "...the government will undertake to seek the support of the legislature to provide the necessary funding to school boards to enable the full implementation of the agreement and ensure that class-size targets are achieved."

Just as notable as the actual details of the agreement is the tone of the negotiations and the final results. The deal was reached through the direct intervention of premier Ed Stelmach. As ATA News reported, ATA President Frank Bruseker recognized the contribution of Stelmach in achieving this solution. "During his leadership bid, Mr. Stelmach made a personal commitment to teachers that he would solve the issue of the unfunded pension liability. He has met that commitment. In fact, his personal intervention and leadership were essential in the process that ultimately resulted in this agreement."

The ATA News also reported: "On a more pro-active note, the Association and the government undertake in the agreement to work co-operatively to enhance the quality of education in Alberta."

Stelmach has put his political reputation on the line by making a personal commitment to lowering class sizes. In a letter to the ATA he stated: "Beyond the legislative and financial aspects of this agreement, I also wish to reinforce to Association members that we remain fully committed to important programs designed to improve the delivery of our education system, such as the Class Size Initiative. Our government recognizes reducing class sizes goes a long way in laying the foundation for a positive learning environment for our students."

The Class Size Initiative in four years has provided funding to hire 2,500 additional teachers. According to Stelmach’s letter: "This is an ongoing financial commitment by government to school jurisdictions and school jurisdictions will be expected to allocate resources to achieve the Alberta’s Commission on Learning targets."

The Alberta Commission on Learning established the following targets:

  • Jr K to Grade 3: 17 students
  • Grades 4 to 6: 23 students
  • Grades 7 to 9: 25 students
  • Grades 10 to 12: 27 students

These targets are district-wide averages and a considerable range in class size can still exist. Also, there are no specific maximum targets for children with special needs and no provision for consulting with classroom teachers on either class size or composition.

In addition to the pension, salary, and class-size commitments, the government has formally committed to "refrain from introducing legislation, regulations or policies that might affect the rights, or employment conditions of the members of the Association."

While the ATA was clearly pleased with the agreement, the process for ratification was complex and time-constrained. The first step was an overwhelming approval by the Emergent Representative Assembly in November. But teachers had to vote individually on the deal and pass it by 50% plus one and 62 teacher bargaining units had to approve new five-year deals.

Because local teacher associations still bargain substantive issues with their school boards—unlike BC teachers—each had to sign a separate collective agreement with their respective boards before January 31, 2008, for the provincial framework agreement to take effect. According to Ernest Clintberg, ATA co-ordinator of Teacher Welfare: "While the agreement between the government and the ATA is fairly straightforward, integrating the terms of that agreement with the specific language contained in individual collective agreements can be tricky." They provided increased bargaining resources to assist local teacher associations.

Teachers overwhelmingly approved the provincial deal. All 62 teacher bargaining units ratified new five-year deals. And in a province-wide vote, 97% of individual teachers also voted in favour.

The toughest test was getting all the 62 school boards to sign five-year collective agreements with their individual teacher associations by the government deadline of midnight, January 31. It literally came down to the wire. At the beginning of the day there were still six holdouts. With just hours to go, all six either accepted settlements or agreed to binding arbitration. The agreement is now ready to be implemented.

Murray Dobbin is assistant director, BCTF’s Communications and Campaigns Division.

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