On February 4, 2002 thousands of teachers across Alberta walked off the job demanding smaller class sizes and higher pay. The strike had the momentum of a run-away freight train. On the first day of the strike 4,800 teachers walked out; that number grew every day until 21,000 teachers were off the job. It was the largest teachers’ strike in Alberta’s history. Public support for the teachers was strong. On February 19, the striking workers organized a demonstration at the legislature that attracted thousands. Students, teachers and parents turned out to show their anger at the right-wing government’s neglect of the education system. Parents and teachers have been demanding better classroom conditions for over ten years to no avail. The long silent working class of Alberta is beginning to wake up. This is reflected in a series of militant strikes in the province; last year thousands of ambulance attendants won their illegal strike. But, the teachers’ dispute doesn’t have the same happy ending.
On Thursday the twenty first, Ralph Klein’s government declared a public emergency thus ordering the teachers back to their classrooms. Surely with such a militant mood and widespread support the teachers would refuse. Under the correct leadership the teachers could have soared to victory. Sadly the labour leaders had led them down a blind alley; they had no intentions of a real fight. They came out with phrases like “Teachers don’t break the law”.
The Bureaucrats did however, vow to fight the back-to-work order in court. After a week long battle in the court room, surprisingly, on Friday, March first, they won their case. The court returned their right to strike and said that there was no real “public emergency”. Chief Justice Allan Wachowich explained that “the very purpose of a strike is to cause some hardship in order to raise the profile of the issues being contested and to pressure the other side into making concessions. If a strike did not cause some degree of hardship, it would be pointless.” The judge announced that teachers had the right to walk off the job immediately, but asked that they refrain from doing so until Monday the fourth to give the government some time to reconsider.
Not only did the bureaucrats agree not to strike before Monday, they agreed not to strike at all! After winning their fight in the court rooms, there is no justification for this. They said they want to enter into arbitration and did not rule out binding arbitration! This must be a first; the union leaders are asking for arbitration. This is an absolute betrayal. Larry Booi, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association has told “all teachers to remain with their students in their classrooms in order to allow these next steps to proceed,” He has also asked the government to “work with us to solve the underlying problems that gave rise to this dispute.” Unfortunately this big business government has no interest in solving the “underlying problems that gave rise to this dispute” because, of course the underlying problem is the capitalist system which is incapable of providing a decent standard of living and education to all.
To make matters worse, the government is planning to introduce legislation declaring teaching an essential service, eliminating the teachers’ right to strike permanently. The maneuvers of the leadership of the Alberta Teachers’ Association will only give the government time to put this legislation through. This was done late last year in British Columbia during the teachers’ dispute. Despite demonstrations of over 10,000 and a province-wide student walk-out in support of the teachers, the bureaucrats wouldn’t call a strike. They instead enforced a ban on extra-curricular activities such as basketball and refused to issue report cards. This served only to diffuse the momentum and actually left the teachers with a contract that was worse than their previous one. There is only one word that the ruling class understands when it comes to negotiations – STRIKE!
As the working class begins to stir in Alberta they will be frustrated by their unrepresentative leaders. This will be reflected in the trade unions and in the New Democratic Party, Canada’s traditional workers’ party. Over the next few years the working class of Alberta will enter into a time of struggle. Not just a class struggle within society against the capitalists, but a struggle within the mass organizations of the working class against the bureaucracy. Workers will be forced to renew their traditional organizations by events. A new wave of militant strikes will sweep the province and the country as a whole. This is a very important time for the working class of Canada and the entire world.
March 1, 2002