The British Columbia’s teachers union just voted 86% in favour of an all out strike. If a settlement is not reached with the provincial government before the end of this week, nearly 40,000 teachers could be walking the picket line come Monday.
At stake are the common issues of class size, salary, and benefits.
Strikes by public teachers are unusually disruptive for two reasons. The first is that the vast majority of parents send their children to a public school. Since our tax dollars automatically go to this system, only a wealthy few can afford to send their children to a private school and avoid such disruptive wide-scale strikes. Eschewing the public education system for the private alternative means that parents must pay for their children’s education twice – once in the form of taxes and again in the form of tuition at the school of their choice.
Second, and more importantly, teachers’ strikes are unusually disruptive because school administrators are left with no options to replace them. Nearly 2/3 of all recent education graduates in Ontario are unemployed or underemployed the following year. British Columbia certifies nearly 3 times the number of teachers it needs each year. Even fast growing Alberta has seen many of its school boards laying off teachers in recent years.
As a simple law of economics, when there is a supply of a resource going unused it is because its price is above the market-clearing level. In one common example this outcome can achieved by a poor law, as is the case with those who are unemployed because of the minimum wage. As workers cannot offer a lower price for their labour services, businesses are unwilling to hire them. The result is forced unemployment.
The question of what is a “fair” salary and remuneration package for public school teachers is a difficult one. I don’t have an answer for it either. I do know that the masses of unemployed recent teaching graduates implies that the total remuneration package for teachers is above the market-clearing level. Schools do not want to hire more teachers because they cannot afford them. Incidentally this is one reason why the teachers’ union and school administrators cannot meet eye-to-eye on the issue of class sizes. Teachers want smaller classes, but administrators cannot afford to hire the number of teachers necessary for this at the current remuneration packages.
These fresh graduates – bright eyed and bushy tailed – want to make a difference in a child’s life. They cannot find work because of a union that has negotiated wages above the market clearing level.
Instead of trying to determine what the fair wage is for teachers, why not just let market forces decide? Let unemployed teachers replace unionized ones during a strike at a wage rate they negotiate with school administrators. If the teachers on strike are worth the money and conditions they demand, the school administration will be all too happy to reach a settlement with them to get them back in their class. And if not? In that case we’d have a pretty strong signal that the remuneration package they received in the past was too generous.
(Originally posted at Mises Canada.)