The teachers’ strike in British Columbia, Canada, is over… almost. On Thursday, 40,000 public school teachers in the province will vote on whether to accept the proposed contract. Neither side got everything it wants, and the main headline is that teachers will receive a 7.25% salary raise over 6 years. The province also pledged to add $100-million to an education fund to benefit BC teachers over the next five years.
Education minister Peter Fassbender is seemingly satisfied at a job well done: “We have guaranteed that every student’s educational journey in this school year will be kept whole.”
Right. Not counting the five weeks of shuttered classrooms lost so far this year. That’s over a quarter of the fall term, for those that are counting.
Premier Christy Clark was also pleased with the deal:
We’ve found a way to give teachers a fair raise, improve classroom composition – to really make it work for teachers, but at the same time that we’re making sure it still works for taxpayers. So we’re not going to have to raise taxes, we aren’t going to go into deficit and we’re not going to increase our debt.
No new taxes, but no new debt from this multi-million dollar deal. The money has to come from somewhere. For all of these points Ms. Clark raises to be true, the province must be cutting spending from elsewhere. She doesn’t say where that is, but I have a feeling the offsetting cuts figments of her imagination. My money is on a this settlement attributing to a deficit, or higher taxes, at some point in the future.
While encouraging teachers to accept the deal, BC Teachers’ Federation president Jim Ikers chimed “Be proud… There are meaningful achievements in this deal for teachers and students.”
And therein lies the rub. Everyone should be pleased with this outcome, because a painful strike is the only way it was going to happen. With a near monopoly on schooling in the province (nearly 90% of students are educated in the public system), there is no competitive check to let any of the belligerents settle their dispute elsewhere.
Parents are obviously upset because they don’t have any choice in the matter. Moving to a nice neighborhood with a good school is about all they can do to have a say in their child’s education. Contrast this with, say, buying clothes where you can go where you want and direct your money at the store that best suits you. Parents in BC pay their taxes, and lose all control of how that money is allocated.
It’s fun to poke fun at entitled teachers, but think about it from their point of view. You are in an industry with only one company to work for. Your pay is pre-determined according to a scale that you have no control over, by people you will never meet. Your colleagues cannot be let go if they do not perform. You enter the job wide-eyed and bushy tailed, only to find that for all the efforts you do, there is not much you can do to peaceably argue for better working conditions. No bantering over your salary raise for the coming year during the annual performance review. No back-and-forth with the boss over your working hours. If you are dissatisfied, it’s nearly impossible to quit your job and look for another in the same field (and licensing requirements across provinces make teachers trained for one system unemployable in others). There is only one recourse left to this group if they want a better work life – strike!
You can almost sympathize with the opprobrium felt by the teachers.
This strike will not be the strike to end all strikes, because the conditions for why the strike was necessary are not fixed. There is no competition in schooling as long as it remains in the public’s hands. Parents will continue feeling trapped and looking to the government to maintain services with minimal amounts of disruption, since they can’t vote with their feet and send their kids elsewhere. Teachers will continue protesting and threatening for better conditions the next time their contract expires because it’s the only way they can argue for a better working life.
If you want to understand why public school teachers’ strikes are so disruptive, think about the one main fact that separates that industry from others. It’s not hard to please customers (parents). It’s not demanding employees (teachers). It’s that the lack of competition means that a strike is the only way the two sides can settle disputes.
(Cross posted at Mises Canada.)