Alberta finance minister says no money available for teacher salary increases

EDMONTON — Alberta’s finance minister is taking effective control of upcoming contract bargaining with teachers and says there’s no money for salary increases.

“I’ve been very clear and our position hasn’t changed: in Budget 2020 there’s no provision for increased remuneration levels across the board,” Travis Toews said Tuesday.

“We’re hopeful with every one of our public-sector partner unions that we can all take a look at the … current economic realities and ultimately come to a good agreement on a path forward.”

Toews made the comments prior to introducing an omnibus bill that includes shifting overall bargaining responsibility from the Education Department to his ministry.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association contract with the province expires Aug. 31. Talks on a new deal with its 46,000 members are just ramping up.

The Teachers’ Employer Bargaining Association — made up of representatives for the government as well as for school-board trustees — will still directly negotiate on behalf of the province on broad issues.

Jason Schilling, president of the association, has noted teachers have had no wage increases in six of the last seven years, despite rising student enrolment.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government is taking a hard bargaining line with public-sector unions as it seeks to fulfil its promise to redirect government spending to deliver better outcomes while also balancing the budget by 2023.

Alberta is projecting a $7.5-billion deficit this year and a $6.8-billion deficit in 2020-21.

Toews has been the point person on public-sector talks. He introduced legislation last year that delayed arbitration for thousands of public-sector employees and followed that with requests for wage rollbacks.

Alberta is asking 24,000 government staff, including sheriffs and social workers, to take a one per cent pay cut in the first year of a new contract followed by a three-year wage freeze.

The United Nurses of Alberta says the government is proposing no wage increases over the next four years along with reductions to overtime, holiday and premium pay in their new contract.

Kenney’s government is relying on a report from a government-appointed panel last year that said Alberta public servants are paid higher than workers in comparable jurisdictions but in some cases deliver lesser results.

The report cited that Alberta teachers receive about $116,000 a year on average in salary and compensation, compared with $119,000 in Ontario and $104,000 in British Columbia.

“Currently we have by far the most expensive provincial government in Canada,” Kenney told the house Tuesday. “We’re not getting the results to justify that.”

The legislation also makes changes to reserve funds that schools keep.

The bill proposes that starting this fall, schools would need to clear spending from those funds with the government. After two years, a cap would be imposed on how much a school could keep in reserve.

Toews dismissed suggestions that he has concerns with how much schools are socking away in the funds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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