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Rollback suggestion is wishful thinking but provocative

Q & A

November 5, 2019 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: Last week I heard the minister of finance say that government was demanding cuts to public service salaries of between two and five per cent. What does this mean for teachers?

Answer: At this point, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is proceeding to arbitration to determine teacher salaries for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 school years. Finance Minister Travis Toews’s announcement should not affect the arbitration process and largely amounts to wishful thinking. However, Toews’s comments point to serious threats and challenges ahead.

Teachers may recall that as part of the settlement arrived at through mediation and ratified last May by both the Teachers’ Employers Bargaining Association (TEBA) and the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the determination of salary for 2018 to 2020 was left to the decision of an independent arbitrator. In accordance with that settlement, the binding arbitration process was to set salary increases — the language here is important because the Association’s position is that this would preclude decreases of the sort being demanded by the finance minister. In fact, another provision allows, but does not require, the arbitrator to award an increase that could be retroactive as far back as April 1, 2019.

This arbitration process was to have been completed by Sept. 30, 2019; however, the government’s passage of Bill 9 unilaterally postponed the deadline for all arbitrations to Dec. 15 and, as a result, teachers’ salary arbitration hearings will take place in mid-November. Although the Association has launched a court challenge of Bill 9, it will be years before that matter is heard and finally resolved. In the interim, we will still proceed with the delayed arbitration process.

As the ATA and TEBA begin bargaining for the next agreement, it is clear government desires tight control over employers and their bargaining mandates. 

In the teachers’ settlement, the issue of salary went directly to arbitration. This is not the case in the arbitrations involving other public sector unions, most notably the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the United Nurses of Alberta and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta. In settlements involving these unions, a period of bargaining was required and only when those negotiations failed to result in an agreement did the parties have access to arbitration. As we understand it, in the course of those talks, employer representatives had tabled proposals to maintain salaries at current levels and so would normally be prevented from now seeking a rollback of salary at arbitration.

In response, the government has introduced Bill 21, which allows employer representatives to step back from their previously tabled positions and to propose cuts — something that would otherwise be illegal. While it is effectively facilitating bad faith bargaining (specifically, “bargaining to a receding horizon”), the government has not gone so far as to direct the outcomes of the arbitrations — that will still be up to independent arbitrators to determine.

Understood in this context, Toews’s call for cuts does not bind the arbitrators currently dealing with public sector settlements, but it is provocative, offensive and disrespectful both of the arbitration processes underway and of the public servants involved, including teachers. While the government may want to bargain in public to advance its political agenda, the Association will not reciprocate. We will put forward the teachers’ position when and where appropriate, that is, when we appear before the arbitrator.

More worrying, however, is what all this bodes for the future. As the ATA and TEBA begin bargaining for the next agreement, it is clear that government desires tight control over employers and their bargaining mandates. Furthermore, if the government decides to follow certain recommendations of the MacKinnon Report on Alberta’s Finances, it could introduce legislation that would allow it to unilaterally dictate settlements involving teachers and other public sector employees. This would be a recipe for strife and disruption across the public sector, the likes of which this province has never seen. ❚

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at

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