Like most striking workers, BC teachers tend to believe they are underpaid and overworked. And like most employers today, the BC government is facing tough economic times and can’t afford to be generous with its workers.
It’s a classic labour relations standoff that stems from attitudes deeply imbedded in human nature and driving the almost universal belief that one’s work is not valued properly.
In market economies this belief is tamed by the invisible hand of competition. Employers who have unfilled vacancies pay more. If they are swamped by job applicants, they pay less. In the end, workers find jobs with the highest pay they can get and employers can afford to pay.
The market solution to the determination of workers’ pay was damaged when governments passed legislation allowing workers to form unions and permitting them to strike without having to pay for damages.
In the private sector, the ability of unions to extract benefits for their members through strikes is limited by market forces. If union demands are excessive, employers go bankrupt and the workers lose their jobs.
However, in the public sector, unions face no such limits. Politicians typically put up some resistance to union demands, but in the end give in and raise taxes to pay for the increased costs. Small tax increases do less electoral damage than do public sector strikes.
As a result of this game, public sector union members now enjoy compensation levels much above those for comparable private sector work. But the game is now over. Deficits are unsustainable, debt has become excessive, and the public opposes higher taxes. Politicians everywhere are looking for ways to deal with this new reality.
In British Columbia they have chosen to freeze the salaries of public sector employees. This policy has been accepted by all public sector unions, except that of the teachers.
Fights between the BC teachers union and the government have a long history and transcend party lines. They will always be there. Give people the power to decide what they should be paid, they will always try to use this power to get what they want.
The only permanent solution to this problem therefore is to deprive teachers of the right to strike. The government that granted that right can also withdraw it. Such a policy is consistent with the widely held view that anyone who does not want to work for an organization that is prohibited from striking is free to work for one where the right exists.
The policy will restore the role of market forces. The government as the employer will rationally set wages so that there are neither unfilled vacancies nor teachers looking for work. School curricula and working conditions for teachers will be set in response to demands from parents and the political pressures they generate with input from teachers.
To prevent only strikes but also increase the effectiveness of the educational system, the government should change the current system further by giving all parents vouchers that they spend on schools, which through competition are induced to provide the type and quality of education parents believe their children need.
Under this system, governments continue to meet their commitment to provide universal access to education. The big difference is that parents indirectly hire teachers that meet their standards, replacing the current system which sees teachers hired directly by government agencies that are much less sensitive to their children’s needs than are parents.
The use of vouchers will end some current practices that make contributions of questionable value to teaching effectiveness as determined by parents. Such practices involve time for preparation, further education and other conditions negotiated by the union. Merit will take the place of seniority in setting the pay of individual teachers.
The special needs of some students are readily accommodated under the voucher system by providing them with vouchers that compensate schools for the extra cost they need to incur.
There is no time like now for at least a debate, if not action, on the possible prohibition of strikes by teachers union and the universal use of vouchers. The public is tired of strikes, the deficits and debt caused by excessively generous wage package in the past and never-ending demands for better and costly working conditions. The public is looking for political leadership to deal with these problems, not just the band-aid solutions offered by the type of legislation now used.
(This article was published in the Vancouver Sun on March 14, 2012)