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History lessons from Alberta teacher strikes

​ATA 101

December 7, 2021


ATA 101 is a feature series aimed at informing members, both new and experienced, about various aspects of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

This instalment provides a brief glimpse of six of the most significant teacher strikes in Alberta history. Watch for additional instalments in upcoming issues of the ATA News.


While it’s referred to as a provincewide strike, the teacher strike of 2002 actually involved 24 ATA bargaining units, which all went on strike in February of that year. The main issue was budget cuts leading to the erosion of public education. 


For the Alberta Teachers’ Association, as with most labour organizations, going on strike is an act of last resort, to be carried out only after all other efforts to reach a collective agreement have been exhausted.

Throughout the ATA’s 103-year history, its locals have been involved in 52 strikes. In the past two decades, there have only been two strikes — those coming in smaller locals. Most of the 52 work stoppages lasted a few days but some endured for a week or two and some very rare cases lasted for many weeks.

Here is a summary of six of the most historically significant teacher strikes in Alberta history.

1921: Edmonton high school teachers

This year, 2021, marks a century since Alberta teachers took their first strike action. In 1921, Edmonton’s high school teachers took strike action on two principal issues. 

First, teachers were demanding their employing board recognize their new professional association, the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance, founded in 1918. More importantly, the second issue focused on teachers’ professional right and responsibility to be consulted on all matters touching upon public education under the auspices of the board. Put differently, teachers would not be silenced and were insisting on exercising their right to fully and meaningfully practice their profession.

The board responded by hiring replacement staff, prompting creative responses from ATA members. Replacement staff in one school could not locate a single student ledger, which had all been carefully put away for safe keeping. In another case, the principal instructed students to co-operate with an entire replacement staff but was quick to predict that students might find it difficult to stay disciplined with an entire new group of utter strangers at the front of classrooms. The principal’s prediction turned out to be accurate. 

The strike lead to the establishment of the first ATA strike fund. 

1942: Vegreville

In the fall of 1942, Vegreville teachers took prolonged strike action when the employing school board reversed its acceptance of an arbitration award. Following a near unanimous vote, 62 teachers took to the picket lines on Nov. 10, 1942, and stayed out of their classrooms for a full 33 days. 

School did not resume until January, 1943, and only opened following intervention by the department of education, which imposed a settlement that closely mirrored the original arbitration award. This strike was a test case in the application of labour legislation. Moreover, it demonstrated solidarity among ATA members outside of Vegreville, who supported their colleagues with a voluntary contribution of $1 per member per month during the strike and for one month following, providing the striking teachers with income during the work stoppage. 

1957: Normandy

May 23, 1957, marked the first time in ATA history that a local rejected a conciliation award. That day, Normandy School District teachers voted to strike despite the provincial ATA’s advice that the employer’s offer was favourable compared to other jurisdictions. 

In this case, the employer happened to be the Royal Canadian Air Force, which operated a school district in the Griesbach area of Edmonton. The teachers were dissatisfied with the RCAF’s conduct during the negotiations and engaged the strike to signal their disapproval. Schools closed for the last three weeks of June 1957, and the strike extended into the summer break. 

During that time, the trustees did away with the designation of vice-principal. In the settlement agreement, teachers demanded that this role be reinstated. The RCAF relented and school did open on time for the 1957/58 school year. 

The Normandy job action significantly demonstrated that the ATA was willing to take on any party, even the federal government, which pursued action against teachers that contravened the School Act, thus undermining teachers’ professional status. 

1963: County of Strathcona

Although not the longest strike, the county of Strathcona job action of 1963 was certainly the most acrimonious. At a time when funding for schools was based on local taxpayers, the county was a particularly affluent area benefitting from very productive farmland and oil and gas development. A previous strike in 1955 had engendered enduring bitterness between teachers and the employing board. 

The October 1963 issue of the ATA Magazine stated that the county council had arranged a series of meetings at which an official of the Alberta School Trustees’ Association and a hired economic consultant had presented material in support of the county’s position in the dispute. Meanwhile, teachers felt the proposal was meagre and that the county council’s attitude was intransigent. They accused the county of causing interminable delays in the negotiations, engaging in “studied misrepresentation” of the teachers’ position and making teachers the pawns in a bigger game being played by the board and its advisers.

Although a settlement was reached in seven days, the strike had significant consequences, including increased animus from government and subsequent attacks on teachers’ bargaining rights and statutory ATA membership. These moves against teachers’ rights and professionalism have continued periodically over the ensuing decades.

2002: Provincewide strike

Feb. 4, 2002, witnessed the beginning of a provincewide job action in response to years of relentless cuts to education funding by the Conservative government led by Ralph Klein.

With its members facing increasingly untenable working conditions, the ATA had worked over the previous five years to educate parents and the public about the Klein government’s deliberate erosion of quality public education. 

The seeds of the 2002 strike were sown on Oct. 5, 1997, when 15,000 teachers descended on the Alberta legislature to protest against funding cuts. By 2002, teachers were primed for action and in February of that year 24 locals representing more than 22,000 teachers went on strike.

The sheer reach of the strike and the number of school boards involved put enormous pressure on parents, students, government, teachers and the ATA. 

In response, Klein legislated teachers back to work by passing the Education Services Settlement Act. Arbitrations followed to deal with individual boards’ collective agreements and the government created the Alberta Commission on Learning to address issues raised by the strike. 

The commission reported in October 2003. Its recommendations on improved classroom and learning conditions were an important outcome of the 2002 job action. 

2007: Parkland teachers

The month-long Parkland Local 10 strike of 2007 was acrimonious. On Feb. 19, 2007, teachers in 22 schools found themselves on the picket line expecting a long-haul labour action. Local 10 president Robert Twerdoclib made it plain to stakeholders that teachers’ resolve would not be shaken. 

“The pressure on teachers’ lives is heavy and mounting,” Twerdoclib explained. 

Teachers were seeking parity with neighbouring school jurisdictions on hours of instruction provisions. The board refused to co-operate with a disputes inquiry board formed by the provincial government. Twerdoclib and Local 10 teachers were not surprised. 

“There is no way we can rely on the trustees and the division’s management to institute improvements to teacher workload,” he said. 

Despite proposals being advanced for a multi-year deal involving workload, salary and benefits, the strike wore on. Two weeks in, the employer brought an application before the Labour Relations Board (LRB) seeking permission to ignore ATA leadership and take their latest offer directly to teachers. The application also asked the LRB to declare the teachers’ original strike vote illegal.

Rhetoric was high and inflammatory. The board made threats seeking monetary damages against the ATA and individual teachers. The LRB noted several issues with concern: that the parties had resorted to mediation only three times over several bargaining dates and the board’s 16-day delay before objecting to the strike vote, which the LRB interpreted as an apparent attempt to coerce and intimidate teachers into accepting the board’s proposal. 

The LRB concluded that it made no “labour relations sense whatsoever” to grant the board’s application. Local 10’s strike was legal. 

In the end, the parties submitted to voluntary, binding interest arbitration and the strike was put to bed. Teachers returned to their classrooms with a commitment to ensure students would end their year caught up in their lessons. The 2007 Parkland strike’s vitriol demonstrated the vital need for honest dealings between employing school boards and professional teachers. ❚

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