EDMONTON, Alberta, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The Alberta government declared a state of emergeny in the province's education system, and ordered more than 20,000 striking teachers back to work Friday, citing concern for 350,000 students who have been missing classes.
The move came just two days after the Alberta Cabinet appeared to duck issuing a back-to-work order, as some 3,000 demonstrators chanted slogans and waved placards while the Cabinet met in the Legislature building
Thursday, Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford said he expected the teachers and the children back in their classes Friday morning.
Learning Minister Lyle Oberg said there was concern for the 350,000 children who have been missing classes, especially the 12th-grade students who risk not graduating this year if the strike drags out much longer.
The decision to order the teachers back to work came after the right-of-center Progressive Conservative Cabinet held a conference call with Premier Ralph Klein, who has the reputaiton of being one of the toughest provincial premiers in Canada. Klein was in Germany, with a trade mission headed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and had earlier decided not to fly back home to resolve the crisis.
Some 14,000 teachers across the province have been on strike since Feb. 4, and the crisis deepened Tuesday when another 6,000 public school teachers joined them, bringing the total to more than 20,000, in what has become the biggest teachers' strike in Alberta's history.
The Alberta Teachers Association said it had asked its members to abide by the government's order, but the union's lawyers would be in court on Friday to challenge the government's state-of-emergency declaration.
The teachers are demanding more pay, smaller classes, better working conditions, and contract language that would boost recruitment and give teachers longer retention terms.
Klein says Alberta teachers are already among the highest paid in Canada, but last year his government allocated a 6 percent pay hike for them over two years. The teachers are demanding nearly twice that amount. Klein says there simply isn't enough cash in the kitty.
Dunford told reporters the government was giving the teachers' union and the school boards until March 15 to reach a deal, failing which an arbitrator's settlement would be imposed on them.
ATA President Larry Booi said he did not believe the government had enough evidence to prove that an emergency existed. Nevertheless, the teachers had decided earlier that if they were ordered back to work, tbey would abide by the order and return to their classes, while waiting for a court decision
An earlier Ontario court decision, taken as a benchmark in other provinces, sets 23 days as the limit for a teachers' strike, beyond which it becomes an emergency. The 14,000 teachers who walked out on Feb. 4 have been on strike for 17 days, or six days short of the benchmark.