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New bargaining approach must focus on fairness–ATA president

March 10, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

ATA’s Mark Ramsankar reacts to government reform of public sector bargaining

Alberta’s teachers are prepared to talk with the provincial government about a new model for collective bargaining, but the model must be fair for both teachers and government.

That’s one of the messages being shared by Alberta Teachers’ Association President Mark Ramsankar following a March 2 announcement that the province plans to reform its approach to bargaining with public sector unions.

“As the primary funder of Alberta’s public sector and as an employer, the government will be developing a co-ordinated and disciplined long-term approach to funding for public sector bargaining that is fair, consistent and respectful of both workers and taxpayers,” stated a government news release that carried the headline, “New era for public sector bargaining in Alberta.”

Among the government’s stated aims are to achieve fair settlements for employees that are consistent with the government’s fiscal goals and to promote labour stability and the protection of public services.

This will be pursued by establishing a working group led by Tim Grant, deputy minister for Alberta Justice. Grant will hold discussions with other public sector employers in the province. The working group will review best practices and present recommendations on how to “revitalize and modernize the province’s approach to labour negotiations.”

Ramsankar said Alberta’s education sector already enjoys tremendous ­labour stability, as the vast majority of Alberta students in school today have never lost a day of school as a result of a labour disruption.

“It would be a mistake to move towards a model like that in B.C., where labour relations are much more disruptive,” he said.

A teacher strike in B.C. last year saw students miss the last two weeks of classes in June and the first three weeks of classes in September. Teachers in that province also went on strike in 2012, 2005 and 2002.

“The best way to maintain stability is to ensure that schools have stable and adequate education funding, which is not the case currently in Alberta,” Ramsankar said.

He added that the Association’s preference is for bi-level collective bargaining in which broader issues like education funding are negotiated at a central table while local issues are discussed with individual school boards.

Controversial budget

In recent months, Prentice has said the province is facing a “fiscal hole” of around $7 billion in the next fiscal year, due to the rapid decline in oil and gas prices. He’s also said that the upcoming spring budget, described as a comprehensive plan to end the government’s reliance on natural resource revenue, will be so controversial that it will require a mandate from Alberta residents.

Consequently, all parties are gearing up for a spring election that’s expected to be called within the next month.

The government backed up its call for changes to collective bargaining practices by stating that recent negotiations have led to settlements that have increased costs significantly, and that public sector salaries in Alberta are scheduled to increase by $2.6 billion over the next three years.

“This is about getting our own house in order and improving how we bargain. As public servants, we are all paid out of the same purse. At times, bargaining is conducted as though there are different owners of that purse when, in reality, there is only one: the Alberta taxpayer,” Prentice said.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees reacted to the announcement by accusing the Prentice government of “using front-line employees as a shield for the PC government’s longstanding history of fiscal mismanagement.”

AUPE President Guy Smith attacked the $2.6 billion figure.

“It appears to be a political number cooked up for the sake of the premier and the finance minister’s speeches,” he said. ❚

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