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Editorial: Promises, promises

February 24, 2015 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Just over six years ago, I married my best friend and the love of my life. In many ways, our wedding day blew by quite quickly. Some moments are a complete blur, yet others stick in my mind quite clearly, as if time has stood still. The reading of the vows was like that, including the part that covered for better, for worse, for richer and for poorer.

When we enter legal contracts, such as marriage, we make commitments to do certain things for the other party of the contract. In making those commitments, we choose to give up certain freedoms. (I know what you’re thinking — I’m a real romantic). We oblige ourselves to live with the promises we’ve made in spite of an uncertain future.

I’m grateful for this, because it means that my wife is committed to staying with me even if I completely let myself go. Similarly, I am committed to staying with her despite her annoying habit of leaving items atop the recycling bag rather than opening the bag wide enough so that these items might actually fall into it.

We swore our vows in front of a marriage commissioner and assembled witnesses so that we could be held to those commitments. Similarly, a legal contract is put down in words so that the promises can be clearly understood even if circumstances change.

This exchange of commitments into an unknown future is a cornerstone of collective bargaining. Collective agreements are legal contracts that exist between employees, as a collective, and their employer (not to be confused with your individual teaching contract by the way). For teachers, there are 62 different collective agreements that exist between individual school boards and their local teachers, organized through the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Teachers agree to fulfill their professional duties, and boards agree to compensate teachers according to the terms of the agreement.

Because the Alberta government is not a party to collective agreements, it sought in 2013 to establish a provincial framework agreement to guide collective bargaining. While the proposed framework was endorsed by Provincial Executive Council (the ATA’s governing body), it was not ratified by all 62 bargaining units. So Bill 26, the Assurance for Students Act, legislated the framework and made it binding on school boards, teachers and government.

A number of government commitments are contained in that agreement. Other commitments, including those on teacher instructional time, are contained in Ministerial Order #033/2013. A further set of commitments were contained in a letter, dated June 27, 2013, from then Minister of Education Jeff Johnson to then Association President Carol Henderson.

This “comfort letter” contains commitments that the government was prepared to make but couldn’t be bound to because they required the support of the Alberta legislature, and the government in power cannot bind decisions of the legislature. Instead, the comfort letter outlines what the government intends to do to live up to certain commitments it made.

The letter states that the government won’t proclaim any changes to laws that relate to the professional lives of teachers and that it will seek full funding of the costs of the agreement. Specifically, Minister Jeff Johnson, on behalf of the government of Alberta wrote, “We pledge to seek the legislative assembly’s support for the necessary funding to enable the memorandum of agreement’s full execution and implementation.”

The ATA’s provincial council would not recommend an agreement that the government could then underfund, force layoffs and erode classroom conditions. Teachers, therefore, fully expect Budget 2015 to propose a two per cent increase to school board grant rates, full funding for a projected three per cent student population increase and the funds required to pay teachers a one per cent lump sum payment in November.

If the budget proposed by the minister of finance and supported by the premier and his caucus does not include these provisions, then the government is not seeking “the legislative assembly’s support for the necessary funding” as promised.

Sure, circumstances have changed. Oil prices have dropped and we have a new premier, but the government has not changed. A majority of the MLAs currently in the government caucus were in the caucus then. The minister who made the pledge is still a minister of the Crown.

In spite of the uncertain future, the government must live up to these promises — for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. To do otherwise would mean that government promises made around collective bargaining can’t be taken seriously again. ❚

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