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‘You get what you fight for’

A look back at the 2002 teacher strike, 20 years later

February 1, 2022 Kate Toogood, ATA News Staff


On Feb. 4, 2002, more than 14,000 teachers across Alberta made history when they went on strike, in the largest teacher action in the province’s history.

Their major grievances were class sizes and other student learning conditions, chronic underfunding, and targeted political attacks on public education by elected officials that had begun in the 1990s.

According to then Association president, Larry Booi, the road to the 2002 strike was long, and it happened because the provincial government went back on its promises and a united, assertive teacher body was unwilling to live with the status quo. 

“There was a huge frustration from teachers, and they certainly were not able to do their best work for kids,” Booi says. “This had been the case since the 1990s, but the longer it went on in a province with huge surpluses and an abundance of cash, the more the frustrations grew.”

“Ultimately, we felt we had no other choice if we wanted to see some change.”

From 1999 to 2000, relations between the Alberta government and teachers were relatively positive. However, following the March 2001 provincial election, the government’s attitude toward investing in public service seemed to change. 

One of the factors that Booi believes demonstrated this shift and contributed to the willingness of teachers to strike was the outcome of collective bargaining between the province and its doctors and its nurses in 2001. These negotiations saw a substantial increase in funding added to the health-care system. It seemed that the government would do the same for education, and Booi says teachers began to feel a small sense of optimism. 

However, the provincial budget again slashed funding for education.

Another factor Booi believes contributed to this shift in government attitude to education was political posturing within the PC party, as Education Minister Lyle Oberg and Health Minister Gary Mar jostled to be next in line for party leadership.

“I think that Dr. Oberg had made the decision to go for the leadership, and since Minister Mar was seen by the right-wing party as ‘giving in’ to the health-care and public sectors, Minister Oberg decided to cast himself as the person who really knew how to do public sector bargaining.” 

“Up until the 2001 election, he had done some fairly progressive things for education, such as early learning and early learning interventions. If he had continued down that road, there wouldn’t have been a strike.”


Enough is enough

However, by summer 2001, teachers had had enough, and began discussing when and how to undertake job action. At the 2001 Annual Representative Assembly (the ATA’s AGM), teacher representatives made a clear decision to move toward striking, overriding a previous commitment to local bargaining and moving to provincially co-ordinated local bargaining, in which local bargaining was conducted with the assistance of provincially assigned bargaining agents. 
“There was always the hope that government would see the light and do what they had done for doctors and nurses, and we continued having meetings with government in an attempt to avoid this thing, but Minister Oberg seemed locked in, and the longer this went on the more punitive he became.”
In January 2002, the Association began announcing strike plans, and locals began finalizing plans for job action. The strikes were planned to begin after diploma exams so as to not interfere with the future plans of Grade 12 students. In all, 24 locals representing more than 22,000 teachers went on strike at various points between Feb 4 and Feb. 21, when the province issued a back-to-work order. 

Even after the order was struck down by the court a few weeks later, teachers remained in the classrooms to ensure students didn’t lose out on any more instructional time while negotiations continued.

Booi sees these decisions as instrumental in demonstrating that teachers were behaving fairly and reasonably in difficult circumstances, and cemented an understanding in parents and Albertans that teachers were not acting just for themselves – they were standing up for public education as a whole.

“We had terrific parent support, not just because the cause was just, but because for the years leading up to 2002 we didn’t talk about how tough it was for us, we talked about classroom conditions where we were trying to deliver services to children,” he says. “This was about high quality education, not about how much we were suffering.”

Reason for optimism

Now, 20 years later, Booi recognizes the similarities between the conditions that lead to the strike and the current teaching environment. However, he believes conditions now are much worse.

“Both situations were bad, but what you have now is deplorable,” he says. “It’s obvious that the current government actively wants to undermine public education to create opportunities for private education. The destabilization of public education, increases in class sizes but great expectations that can’t be met without increased support that’s never provided, and then you throw in a pandemic, and I honestly don’t know how teachers are hanging in there.”

Although the road to the 2002 strike was long, Booi credits the strength of the teaching profession for maintaining a strong position. And he believes it is this strength that can help teachers lead the charge in improving public education heading into the next provincial election.
“The solidarity and commitment from teachers was remarkable, and is a testament to what we can achieve together,” he says. 

“Seeing that, I’m actually optimistic in the long run, because we know how important public education is, and the public is on our side. And ultimately, you get what you fight for. When teachers stand up and stand together, which is what happened in 2002, incredible things happen.” ❚

A full account

Read a full recounting of the road to the 2002 strikes in the ATA document, Teachers On the March: the 2002 Strike, available on the ATA website.   

Between two presidents

Watch a conversation between former ATA president Larry Booi and current ATA president Jason Schilling.

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