The vice-chair of St. Albert’s public school board says she’s not wild about a proposed law that would strip local boards of some of their powers in contract talks with teachers.
Alberta Education Minister David Eggen tabled Bill 8 Thursday afternoon. Dubbed the Public Education Collective Bargaining Act, the bill sets out a new framework for how teachers, school boards, and the province will negotiate collective agreements.
“This bill will allow us to develop a two-table bargaining model that is fair and effective,” Eggen said, and gives the province direct involvement in the negotiation process.
Currently, all 61 Alberta school boards negotiate 61 contracts with their local teachers’ unions. Those talks can be problematic, as it’s the province that controls the money to pay those contracts, and it’s not involved in the talks.
In 2007 and 2012, the province stepped in and negotiated a deal for all the boards and unions. When several groups, including St. Albert Public Teachers Local No. 73, threatened to scuttle the latter deal by not approving it, the province imposed it through legislation.
That led to situations where the province didn’t provide the cash needed to pay for those deals, said St. Albert Public board vice-chair Sheri Wright.
“If they’re going to bargain the rate, they should make sure they produce the funding necessary in order to pay for it.”
Bill 8 would split contract talks into central and local issues.
Central issues, defined as anything that significantly affects the expenditures of one or more boards or that involves issues common to most boards, would be hashed out between the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and a new Teachers’ Employer Bargaining Association (TEBA). The latter would include representatives from every board plus the province.
Decisions made by TEBA and the ATA on central issues would be binding on all local boards and unions, according to the bill. Any issue those groups don’t address would be decided locally.
This bill focuses on the how and not the what of bargaining, Eggen said. The province will work with the ATA over the next few weeks to determine which issues are central and which are local. He expected that wages would go on the provincial table, though.
Past contract talks ran into “rocky roads” because they didn’t have that direct link between the funders (the province) and teachers, Eggen said. This new system will bring clarity to negotiations and reduce labour strife.
The province will spend $550,000 to run the TEBA group for the first two years, after which local boards will fund it, Eggen said. While the province did want to negotiate directly with teachers given its tough economic situation, Eggen would not speculate on whether this would lead to lower wages.
Carryl Bennett-Brown, president of Greater St. Albert Catholic Teachers Union Local 23, said it was a good idea to turn issues such as wages over to a provincial board. Leaving wages up to local boards had created big gaps in pay rates between districts.
“I really hope the whole purpose of this is to put everyone on the same playing field.”
St. Albert Public made it clear to the province earlier this year that it preferred local bargaining for all issues, that every district is different and that some decisions need to be made locally, Wright said.
She hoped that the bill would leave a considerable amount of decision-making in the hands of local boards.
“If it’s mandated by the province, we’ll make it work.”
While some boards told the province that they preferred local bargaining, Eggen said many were “frankly relieved” to have issues such as wages determined at the provincial level.
The current teachers’ contract expires on Aug. 31, 2016.