Alberta Teachers' Strike: Struggle Against the Tories Continues

Since day one of the "Klein Revolution" it seemed obvious that eventually something, someone, somewhere, would break. The unions were caught unawares and stood idly by as welfare and unemployment benefits were slashed. Soon public utilities were sold off and threats were levelled against our sacred healthcare. Teachers and nurses bought into "fiscal responsibility" and took pay cuts to help advance the assault against the institutions their unions and associations had fought hard to establish just 40 years ago. Now after ten, or twelve, or fifteen years of Tory rule (how long has it been anyway?), and continuous cuts to education and health, we can see the results of this fiscal responsibility. Teachers in the province have reached breaking point. Their wage cuts years ago - which they have never been able to regain - coupled with the rising cost of living in the province and the huge slashes to the education system resulting in larger class sizes, longer days and less to work with, have left them frustrated and angry.

The teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike on February 4. They wanted an 11% raise over two years, and the issues of class sizes and poor working conditions addressed. The government offered a 6% raise and wanted no talk of class sizes or working conditions. There was massive public support for the strike that lasted two weeks. On February 21, the Tory caucus declared a state of emergency; saying that teachers were an emergency service. They ordered the teachers back to work. But this often-used government tactic was not enough. The teachers were furious, but their association leadership, in order to avoid a real conflict, took the government to court over the declaration of emergency. Surprisingly, the government order was overturned. Here the opportunity was lost by a vacillating leadership that decided not continue the strike but instead to discuss arbitration with the government. This put the teachers in a vulnerable position. At this meeting, the government informed the ATA leader, one Mr Booi, of Bill 12. Bill 12 was rushed through the legislature on Thursday March 14, preventing teachers from going back to the picket lines. It did not however, prevent students demonstrating. Thursday saw hundreds of students walk out of classes in Edmonton to demonstrate their anger over Bill 12. Friday March 15 saw thousands of students across the province leave the classrooms to protest Bill 12.

Bill 12 suspends the right of teachers to strike until August 31, 2003 - the end of the next contract period. A 3-person panel will make binding arbitration on the issue of salaries only by the end of August of this year. Salaries must be limited to what local school boards can afford, and no board may run a deficit. There is also a "no slow-down" clause which prevents teachers from disrupting their regular services. In a crisis, we can see how important "democratic" rights are to the bourgeois government. If a strike causes a problem, then simply legislate away the right until a further date - it is absurd.

Teachers are rightly incensed. Their livelihoods and their ability to affect change in their lives and in their workplaces have been taken away. A demonstration (actually a candlelight vigil) was organized for Sunday March 17. Some 3,000 people, according to local media, braved the cold weather (it was -20C) to demonstrate their opposition to Bill 12. The candlelight vigil perhaps best reflected the mood of the teachers - angry, but sombre and reflective. On Monday March 18, the ATA leadership announced their plan to combat Bill 12. The leadership ruled out any wildcat strike action, and instead "strongly urged" all teachers to refuse all voluntary services including the marking and preparation of diploma exams. The ATA leadership also announced plans to take the government to court over Bill 12. The ATA leadership is talking tough, but after notes from Mr Booi's meeting with Klein were leaked - notes that showed his agreement with the terms of arbitration - the leadership is merely trying to save face.

The teachers are frustrated. They see no hope for a resolution to this conflict. Their jobs and livelihoods are at stake. The assault on healthcare has also heated up this month - we will now see a rise in our monthly healthcare premium payments. There is now talk of assaulting senior benefits. The teachers and the working class in general will attempt every possible means to get out of the present situation before they come to revolutionary conclusions. They are now proceeding to the courts. It is highly unlikely that this second attempt at a legal overturning of a Klein government policy will be successful. This struggle to change the current situation will inevitably be expressed in the NDP and the trade unions. We are definitely entering a new period in Alberta politics. The University of Alberta has elected an activist student union. Workers at local superstores are planning to go on strike. The mood of the population has definitely changed. The NDP and unions in Alberta cannot afford to lose this opportunity to the provincial Liberals. The opposition to the Klein government must centre itself around the party of the working class and its mass institutions - the NDP and trade unions in order to be successful. From here, it is obvious that the assault on the working class and its institutions in BC and Alberta - well, all across North America and world - are organically linked, and so must the opposition to this assault be organically linked, through the mass parties and organizations of the working class.