Last week, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) unexpectedly walked away from the province-wide tri-partite negotiating table with an announcement that the best they can offer is a four year deal with wage increases of 0%, 0%, 1% and 3% over the term of the contract.
The ATA did this knowing full well that wages are not the issue. They were hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of Albertans. They came out on the offensive by pointing to just how reasonable they are being.
When it comes to the issues the ATA and Government actually disagree on, however, the teachers’ position is the furthest thing from reasonable. It’s based on concepts applied during the industrial revolution, when the rise of unionism was an important counterbalance to the rise of the industrial enterprise. This is a time that has long passed – and our education system needs to get away from.
Before reading on, I urge readers to take the time to listen to Minister Johnson’s audio interview
(http://www.education.alberta.ca/department/ipr/tripartite.aspx) for a very full and detailed explanation of the Government’s position including a q&a with the media.
The sticking points between the Government, School Boards and the ATA come down to 2 key issues – workload and what the Minister calls a comfort letter, which is essentially an agreement from the government that they won’t make any changes to regulations, teaching quality standards or legislation that pertains to a teacher’s role for the duration of the contract.
The ATA’s position here is patently unreasonable and completely predictable. All parties involved in this discussion will say that they want what’s best for students, but the teachers’ union by its very nature is there solely to look out for the interests of teachers and, by extension, its own power over the system.
While the Government of Alberta and school boards are looking to transform the education system so that it can function properly in the 21st century, the teachers’ union is protecting long cherished and severely antiquated principles of seniority, as well as the power the union holds when its members keep a monopolistic grip on the education system.
In other words, for the ATA these negotiations are about the very core of what gives a union its power. And for the Government, it’s about taking some of that power back in order to bring transformational change to how education is delivered.
Seniority is important to a union’s power because the longer a worker stays in the system the more money they make and the more union dues they pay. Long term workers have also been paying union dues for longer, which means they deserve more loyalty in return. It’s a closed loop system that leaves little room for innovation and even less room for change.
As the Minister explains in the audio clip, the issue of workload can be addressed in two ways – through a hard cap on hours or by giving teachers additional support in the classroom and redesigning their roles so that low value tasks are removed and more time can be spent on high value tasks.
Given the union’s inherent bias towards the long term worker, the concept of changing a teacher’s role becomes more difficult. A teacher who has a year or two left in their career will be more resistant to this kind of change. It’s natural. Change is hard. Change takes work.
But the union’s motives in this negotiation are more sinister than their systemic bias towards more senior members. These negotiations are about the union’s own relative power over the system. Monopoly equals power – anything less is seen as an erosion of that power and unacceptable to any union in a negotiation.
The union’s solution to workload is to put hard caps on the number of hours a teacher can teach in say a day or a week. Hard caps mean more teachers; more teachers mean more union dues for the ATA. It’s simple – if a teacher can only work 40 hours but there is 60 hours of work that equals 1.5 teachers or 50% more union dues.
It’s a bad deal deal for taxpayers and in the 60% of Alberta schools that hard caps are in place, the problem of teacher workload has not gone away.
The ATA’s other demand of the government – that it not change legislation, regulations, teaching quality standards or anything else related to a teacher’s role is, once again about nothing more than the teacher’s union fighting to keep monopoly control over the system – or its own power.
When the Education Minister talks about providing teachers with more support in the classroom or eliminating low value tasks, he is likely referring to bringing people into the classroom to assist teachers. This way, teachers can focus on the high quality tasks of educating our children while the teaching assistants and other classroom support staff can help with discipline, focus, attendance, paperwork or other administrative tasks.
From a perspective of relative power within the system, this doesn’t work for the teacher’s union.
This new person (or people) in the classroom, who is most likely not a certified teacher and therefore not part of the teacher’s union, will reduce the workload of the teacher, meaning less (or the same amount) of teachers and less union dues for the ATA.
While I’m oversimplifying the examples and I realize that there are many different aspects of a teacher’s role or a classroom environment that can be changed, refocused, etc. … my main point here is that the ATA’s position in these negotiations are purely about self preservation and cynical power politics.
In other words, while the various ways of approaching the issues may seem complex, understanding the motives behind the union bargaining position is extremely simple. The union is there to keep its power and, by extension, the relative power of teachers within the education system.
It’s important to understand that for the union, there is a fundamental disconnect between the interests of teachers and the interests of students, school boards and the Minister of Education. The union exists for teachers, not students – yes, there are circumstances when these interests overlap (the collective bargaining sweet spot); this is not one of those times.
However, in a time where the Government and School Boards are looking to bring sweeping transformational change to the education system, that bargaining sweet spot may be nearly impossible to find.
As a result, we have the ATA’s annoucement last week that they are walking away from the province-wide bargaining table.
Alberta’s education system must embrace the 21st century to prepare kids to thrive in today’s fast paced and innovative world. The longer we allow the teachers’ union to hold onto the industrial revolution values that led to its creation (seniority and self-preservation), the worse the rest of society will be.