EDMONTON - The decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal to over-turn a government back-to-work order involving thousands of striking teachers is a victory for teachers on several levels, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.
"On the most obvious level this is a victory for teachers because it allows them to resume their strike, if they so choose," says Les Steel, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"On another level, it exposes the weakness in the government's arguments that teachers shouldn't be allowed to strike. The Premier has been threatening to introduce legislation defining teachers as an essential service. But if the court says a three-week strike does not constitute an emergency, how can the government justify revoking the teachers' right-to-strike?"
Steel says Chief Justice Allan Wachowich's decision is important because it recognizes that all strikes - by their very nature - cause some degree of hardship. Wachowich went on to say that the hardship caused by strikes is an acceptable price to be paid for living a democratic society.
"The alternative to strikes is imposing a system that turns workers into criminals if they choose to stand up for themselves," says Steel. "That's why these kinds of restrictions have been rejected by most western democracies. And it's why the United Nations has defined the right-to-strike as a basic democratic right along with things like freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech."
On a practical level, strikes can be messy and disruptive - but they are often the only way to resolve contentious disputes in the workplace, adds Steel.
"In most cases, the playing field is tilted sharply in favour of the employer when it comes to contract negotiations," he says. "Without the threat of strikes, employers have no real incentive to consider the concerns of their workers. So strikes clearly have a place. They're a tool of last resort - but if the right-to-strike is taken away, it turns negotiations into a farce where employers never have to compromise."
In the current situation with education in Alberta, Steel says the right-to-strike has served a valuable public service.
"Teachers in this province have been trying to get the government's attention for years with public relations campaigns and other less confrontational lobbying strategies - all to no avail," says Steel. "It got to the point where they felt a strike was the only way to force the government to acknowledge their concerns about things like classroom size and chronic under-funding. If teachers didn't have the right to strike, the government would just continue on with its head in the sand."
Given the important role that strikes and the threat of strikes can play in resolving disputes and bringing simmering issues out into the open where they can be dealt with, Steel says that the government should stop making threats about essential service legislation.
"The dispute with the teachers is not going to be resolved by the government antagonizing teachers," says Steel. "What's really needed is for the government to stop hiding behind the school boards and acknowledge that they - as the central funding authority - need to get to the table and compromise. The government needs to accept responsibility for providing adequate funding for schools in this province."
For more information call:
Les Steel, President @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, Communications Director @ 780-483-3021 (wk) 780-910-1137 (cell)