From My Perspective – Strikes, wages and wage parity

Alberta is currently in the second week of a teacher’s strike, involving the majority of public school teachers from Edmonton, rural areas and Calgary (joining next week). The two sides are not budging, teachers want around 20% and government is offering approximately 6%. Bargaining is at an impasse, and the government may order teachers back to work, likely then moving into binding arbitration. The average starting teacher salary in Alberta is between $35,213 to $59,323, depending on experience (1). Teachers say “its not about money, its about classroom conditions.” We hear much about crowded classrooms – but nowhere do teachers seem to be pushing the government to hire more teachers. If anything a 20% wage hike would result in greater classroom crowding, as the student/teacher ratio would have to increase to compensate for the higher wage. Edmonton’s symphony orchestra has also staged a general walkout. They claim they are not focusing on wages, but rather want a greater say in how the orchestra is managed. However, since one of the management decisions was to reduce number of performances, (a move which would reduce the player’s wages by 5%), wages are involved. The average musician earns about $38,000, with principal musicians paid $44,173 a season (2).

Alberta nurses did not have to go on strike, the threat of a possible one was sufficient, and the government negotiated a contract in 2001 that gives new nurses almost $50,000 a year ($24.70/hour) and senior nurses with 9 years experience around $64,000 a year ($32.42/hour)(3). Doctors also received hefty raises of 22 percent in Alberta this past year, after making threats of work stoppage. Both nurses and doctors negotiated by claiming a nursing/physician shortage. Again, the huge pay raises have not seemed to make much difference. There are still not enough nurses, and just try and find a physician who is taking new patients.

Our government officials have also joined the double-digit wage increase bandwagon. In August 2001, Alberta MLA’s voted themselves a 10% ‘after inflation’ raise, bringing them to a taxable-equivalent rate of $76,250 per year (4). Of course, they did not have to threaten strike action, and there is never a shortage of politicians!

All this occurred in a province where minimum wage currently sits at $5.90/hour. So who has not threatened strike action, gone on strike, and/or received two-figure wage increases this past year in Alberta? * I will give you a few examples:

Janitors. Wage range from $14,000 to a maximum of $30,000 a year (those lucky few who manage to make superintendent/head caretaker). These workers have to pass security checks, work odd/late hours, lift heavy loads, and clean up after the rest of us. Working conditions can involve exposure to hazardous materials, and quite often the clean up jobs are, to put it bluntly, quite disgusting.

Retail Sales People. Most earn minimum wage, (starting at $11,200 a year), although in retail positions that offer commission, some can reach a maximum of $36,900. These workers have to smile a lot, and be pleasant and helpful no matter how grouchy the shopper becomes. They often are obligated by their employer to come in to work sick (many retail stores have a policy that workers must find their own replacement when sick or risk getting fired).

Waiters/waitresses. Minimum wage is standard, with an average of $10,500- $20,200 a year (supplemented by tips). These workers also smile a lot, bring your food, and clean up the mess you leave behind.

Day Care Workers. Wages from $11,164 to $23,712 per year. These workers take care of our most precious resource. Our children. Many working parents leave their children in the care of these people for 8 or more hours daily, over half the child’s waking hours. Day care workers are often the ones who witness the child’s first word, first step. They are the ones who nurture and take care of our little ones to ensure that their well-being is paramount.

So what is wrong with this picture? Wage equity. A very large segment of Alberta workers are working extremely hard and receiving minimal return. Highly paid nurses, doctors, teachers, symphony musicians and MLA’s all go out to dinner and expect great service from their minimum-wage waiter/waitress. They all expect a clean workplace, leaving the dirtiest of jobs for the janitors. They all go shopping and require assistance from the sales person.

Most importantly, they leave their precious children with workers whose services are considered of such low value that their wages represent only a small fraction of those of their employer.

In the teacher’s wage dispute, it is usually those who are already in a high-income bracket who support the 20% increase. Those who are in the ‘other’ category recognize that teachers deserve a raise, but temper it with a dose of reality.

For most of us Athabasca University students, we’ve been there. We’ve struggled with one of these low-paying occupations, and realized that we need to educate ourselves to escape the poverty cycle. It is not a simple task. It is a challenge to find the time and money to invest in education, and doing only one course at a time means our goal is often long into the future. But even once we graduate, we will still need janitors, retail workers, restaurant staff, day care workers, etc.

The employment picture in Alberta (and indeed the rest of Canada) will likely never truly equalize wages. Such a policy is too ‘socialistic’ for our society. But none of us should lose sight of the fact that the current system is unjust. When we want to decide if our sympathies lay with striking teachers/ nurses/ physicians, perhaps we should stop and think about those who are working equally hard yet being paid significantly less.

(1) Edmonton Journal. Teachers Strike.
(2) Edmonton Journal February 16, 2002. Symphony Musicians Play the Picket Line
(3) Alberta’s Health Employers, March 2001.
(4) Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

*All wage information taken from: Alberta Learning Information Services.