As many as 200,000 college and university students in Quebec claim to be “on strike.” Rather than attending classes, writing papers or preparing labs, on select days the students have been cutting classes, blocking traffic and getting tear-gassed.
At issue is a provincial plan to raise university tuition from what is the lowest in Canada to a rate that will be . . . the second-lowest in the country (assuming other provinces maintain their current tuition fee policies). Quebec students currently pay an average of $2,400 per year according to Statistics Canada. The national average is more than double that—$5,400. Quebec’s plan will gradually raise tuition fees until they hit $3,800. Quebec student groups argue tuition should be free, and they’re prepared to walk to make their point.
Unlike strikes in the real world, however, university students lack the sort of leverage enjoyed by actual employees. Students pay for the privilege of going to school, not the other way around. So when they withhold their services, it’s not the provincial government that finds itself inconvenienced, it’s the students themselves. Keep in mind also that the vast bulk of benefits from post-secondary education go directly to students—an undergraduate degree provides an estimated 10 per cent annual return over a student’s entire lifetime. (Not all students have divorced themselves from looming adulthood. Most students at McGill, for example, voted against a strike.)
As absurd, overreaching and self-defeating as the Quebec student strike appears, it is simply the most outrageous example of what promises to be a year filled with overreaching and self-defeating labour strife.
Austerity has become the watchword at all levels of government. As municipalities, provinces and Ottawa struggle to cut deficits and contain costs, it seems increasingly likely public sector unions—used to healthy regular increases in wages and benefits—will find themselves mightily disappointed. Like their confreres at school in Quebec, we may thus expect public sector unions to take to the streets to express their displeasure.
Halifax bus drivers, Toronto librarians, teachers in British Columbia. Across the country, Canadians are already feeling the effects as public sector labour unions push back against the necessity of balanced budgets.
The current dispute in B.C. over teacher pay is instructive. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s initial contract demand, released last summer, called for B.C. educators to be the best paid in the land—which would have meant a 22 per cent wage increase for some teachers. They also wanted 10 days paid bereavement leave—activated upon the death of not just a close relative, but of a friend, too, plus another 26 weeks of compassionate care leave to allow a teacher to look after “any person,” on full pay, rather than teach. Further, there were to be eight paid discretionary days to be taken whenever and for whatever reason, and sizable increases in paid preparation (i.e., non-teaching) time. The only thing missing was free unicorn rides to school.
None of this would be reasonable in times of plenty. With the B.C. government committed to balancing its budget by 2014, such demands can only be described as off-the-charts wacky. (The teachers have since lowered their demands to a 15 per cent wage increase plus assorted benefit goodies.)
The province has offered the same net-zero wage it’s negotiated in 130 other public sector labour agreements. And Premier Christy Clark’s government recently passed legislation temporarily removing teachers’ right to strike. But there is still no contract, and the teachers are considering escalating job actions this week.
It is no longer possible to expect taxpayers to fund perpetual increases in wages and benefits for the public sector, particularly as private sector workers see their pensions disappear and salaries stagnate. There exists a massive gap between public sector union expectations and taxpayers’ ability to pay. How best to close this gap?
Strikes are a time-honoured way for two sides to hammer out their differences. Unfortunately, public sector strikes create widespread pain for the entire community. And because of this, governments often lose their nerve for toughing it out. When things get uncomfortable, politicians tend to opt for back-to-work legislation, followed by binding mediation. And mediators are famous for splitting deals down the middle, a process that encourages unions to make outrageous opening demands in the first place. In the B.C. teachers’ dispute, both government and union are playing these all too familiar roles.
An alternate solution, one proposed for B.C. in a 2004 provincial report, is final offer arbitration. Both sides present their best final offer and an impartial arbitrator picks between the two options, rather than splitting any differences. Such a system pushes each side to negotiate in good faith and present reasonable offers; it’s used successfully in professional sports. If there is a downside, it’s that arbitrators play the role that should properly be filled by taxpayers’ elected representatives.
But where governments are unwilling or unable to see public sector strikes through to a successful conclusion, final offer arbitration may be the best option for all taxpayers—particularly in a year that promises plenty of labour unrest.