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Prentice signals desire for public sector salary concessions

February 10, 2015 ATA News Staff

Cabinet and MLAs agree to voluntary five per cent rollback

Tax reform, not cuts to public sector salaries, is the solution to the province’s fiscal woes, says Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar in the wake of provincial cabinet ministers and MLAs taking a five per cent pay cut.

Effective Feb. 1, Premier Jim Prentice and his cabinet colleagues took a five per cent pay cut as a result of a cabinet motion. MLAs authorized a similar self-imposed pay cut in a meeting of the provincial members’ services committee.

In announcing the rollbacks, Prentice signalled a desire for similar cutbacks to other public servant pay.

“All members of cabinet understand how crucial it is to lead by example, and for political representatives not to ask anyone to accept any measure we would not accept ourselves,” Prentice said.

Following Prentice’s announcement, Ramsankar issued a quick and sharp rebuke of any attempts to monkey with teacher salaries.

“Teachers have already done their part and took a wage freeze for three years,” he said.

In the weeks prior to announcing the pay cut, Prentice described Alberta public sector salaries as unsustainable, noting that public servants are paid more in Alberta than in any other province in Canada.

The pay cut will shave nearly $11,000 from the premier’s $218,000 salary, $10,000 from the $200,000 salary for cabinet ministers and $6,700 from the $134,000 paid to MLAs. The political gesture, described by critics as symbolic, is expected to save $600,000 per year in an effort to plug an anticipated $6 to $7 billion hole in government revenues as a result of falling oil prices.

Ramsankar noted that, while teacher wages have been frozen, average wages in Alberta increased by more than 10 per cent, and the cost of living rose by more than five per cent.

“The premier can’t expect to balance the budget on the backs of teachers or other public servants when the wealthiest Albertans are paying a third less in tax than their counterparts in Saskatchewan,” said Ramsankar.

He also noted that Alberta could raise an additional $11.6 billion in revenue and still maintain its status as the lowest taxed jurisdiction in Canada.

“If the government needs to close a revenue gap, it should do so using progressive tax solutions.”

Ramsankar also challenged the notion that public sector salaries are disproportionately high by pointing out that the earnings of private sector employees in Alberta are 26 per cent higher than the national average compared to about eight per cent higher for public sector employees (see graph).

Legislated settlement

In 2013, the government legislated a settlement through the Assurance for Students Act, which imposed a three-year freeze on teacher salaries and, this September, is slated to provide teachers with their first salary increase in four years.

The legislated framework provides for a two per cent increase to teacher salary and allowances effective Sept. 1, 2015, and a one per cent lump sum payment to be paid no later than the end of ­December 2015. The collective agreements created by the law are in effect until Aug. 31, 2016.

Prentice is saying that discussions have begun with public sector unions, but Ramsankar asserts that there has been no consideration of opening collective agreements.

“The minister met with me to discuss the government’s financial situation in general terms and I told him that teachers fully expect the government to fulfill the terms of the legislated settlement and fully fund the scheduled salary increases,” Ramsankar said.

On June 27, 2013, then Education Minister Jeff Johnson signed a comfort letter to then ATA President Carol Henderson stating that the government would “seek the legislative assembly’s support for the necessary funding to enable the memorandum of agreement’s full execution and implementation.”

At this point, it would be difficult for the government to implement any type of rollback without legislation, Ramsankar said.

“We have no interest in discussing changes to the current collective agreements, and the Supreme Court has put clear parameters around the government’s ability to impose its will on unionized employees.”  ❚

Ramsankar sends clear message

“The flat answer is ‘no.’ Teachers have had three years of [zero per cent raises].”

That was ATA President Mark Ramsankar’s response to a reporter with Metro News when asked whether teachers would consider a salary rollback. The question came immediately after Premier Jim Prentice announced Jan. 29 that he and his cabinet ministers would be taking a five per cent rollback and asking all members of the legislative assembly to do so as well.

Since Prentice started publicly mulling over his spending reduction strategies in the media, Ramsankar has repeatedly said that teachers earn their salaries and are not willing to accept a freeze or rollback.

Here are a few of the Ramsankar comments that have appeared in media coverage over the last couple of weeks:

“This was not negotiated; it was legislated. When you impose your will on a group of individuals and then decide in the fourth year that now we’ve got question marks, that’s a major problem.”
News Talk 770

“You can pick any sector, any place, any job description and we’re getting paid better than anywhere else in the country. I’m not apologizing for where Alberta teachers are sitting.”
The Canadian Press

“Turning directly to teachers or other public sector workers to consider taking more than their share is a difficult ask.”
CTV News Calgary

“If he [Prentice] is going to try to balance the budget on the backs of teachers, that’s the wrong place to start.”
Global National News

“So I would say, Mr. Premier, you need to look elsewhere.”
Edmonton Sun

“To renege in the fourth year of a four-year legislated settlement would be unconscionable.”
Edmonton Journal

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