How to end needless labour strikes? Start with good faith negotiations.

Final offer arbitration may be the best option to deal with this year’s strife

How to end needless strikes? Start with good faith offers.

Darryl Dyck/CP

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.




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How to end needless labour strikes? Start with good faith negotiations.

  1. stopped reading at “absurd and overreaching.”

  2. Stopped reading when I saw that no-one had the cajones to add their byline to this drive-by masquerading as an article.

    • Yet you made it to the comments section. Good for you!

      • I have a scroll wheel which allows me to skip past all the garbage strewn by “the editors”.  I am sorry I clicked the link, though.

  3. What about the government throwing out the class-size limits and cutting funding for special needs teachers? Or the BC government demanding absolute control over the mediation you tout as the prime solution? The article seemed to miss the biggest points of the strike, and focused on the pay element (which isn’t what most teachers are fighting for). Whoever wrote this should have put more research into the reasons behind the BC teachers strike, instead of getting mad and righteous about spending.

    • No Ashley the article didn’t miss the biggest points of the strike. If BC teachers were actually just striking for class sizes and special needs they would have the support of the people and would win. 
      The BC teachers federation uses class size and special needs as the public battle cry while quietly demanding (very quietly, in fact it amazes me how our BC media never mentions the following demands) 10 days paid leave for a friends death? 26 weeks paid leave for compassionate care? 8 paid days of discretionary leave? Plus up to a 22% pay increase! Any person in the private sector who made these types of demands to their employer would be fired on the spot! These selfish demands by the BC teachers are shameful and would damage the province through higher taxes and debt. This is not some 80′s movie about ‘sticking it to the man’, ‘us vs them’. Its our province its our government its our money its our taxes not ‘theirs’. Take a responsible approach to your demands and you will find the people will support you. Right now BC teachers look like a pack of spoiled greek government workers but instead of throwing firebombs they are throwing our kids around!

      • well said. it is the concentration on truly stupid things that defeats unions and causes strikes. the kind of things you have mentioned are truly ridiculous.

    • The gov’t has actually increased funding for special needs AND they said that they are willing to negotiate on class sizes etc – but it has to be net zero to the budget.  That is where the problem lies – the teachers (forgive me, the teacher’s union) don’t give a rats ass about the children.  It really is down to lining the pockets of the union and it’s members and if you think otherwise, you are ill informed.  I would suggest you do YOUR homework.  Teachers and their union need a grasp of reality of what it is like in the real working world.   If only we could fire them all and tell them they can have their jobs back but with a realistic contract that would include they are expected to work from 8:00 to 4:30 and they can have their 2 wks off at sping break but it is counted as vacation pay.  The school board budgets would be balanced.  They don’t like it, there is just as many teachers graduating from university looking for work or who are on the sub list dying to step in and I know this as I have friends who are waiting for full-time teaching jobs. 

  4. No, students are *not* the primary beneficiaries, the public is.

    Statscan has shown that: 

    A university grad makes, on average, about a million dollars more over the course of their lifetime, yes. The additional provincial taxes on that alone more than cover the cost of a full university education — even in Alberta. To say nothing of federal taxes.  So right there you have the public benefiting beyond the cost.

    In addition, university graduates are less likely to be unemployed, and tend to be unemployed for shorter periods of time. This means less drain on our EI and social services systems. Again, something that benefits all of us.

    They also tend to be healthier, having fewer ongoing health and stress related issues — probably because they’re working more and for better wages so can afford a better diet and vacations. However the gist of this is that they cost our public health care system less than their less educated counterparts.

    They also tend to be more likely to start their own small business, and of people who do start their own businesses, are more likely to have it still be in operation five years down the road. Thus providing more employment, more services and, yes, more taxes to the public at large.

    This is all underscored by the OECD’s finding that each additional year of education that the populace of a nation has on average correlates to an increase of about 2% in that nation’s GDP.

    Remember, every argument you place against fully funding post-secondary education is equally valid when placed against fully funding secondary education, or grade school education.  That is.. not very.

    The smartest government would be one that deregulates all post-secondary tuition, but then provides loans to people for the full amount of that tuition which do not have to be repaid so long as the person remains living and working in Canada.

    Now.. none of this goes against your point about strikes in general, but I just really don’t like people or groups who misinform the public about the benefits of education.

    • Maybe we could seperate the arguments of a) the benefits of education, and b) the foolishness of the teachers’ demands.

      • Without acknowledging whether the teacher’s demands are foolish or not (to be honest, don’t give a crap about it and so just skimmed that portion) I will suggest that had “the editors” done what you suggest at the beginning, it would have been a slightly better article.

        • Here you go:

          “…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.”

  5. What no mention of the absurd and heavy handed federal interference that has poisoned labour relations at Air Canada on into the next decade?

    I suppose our “widespread pain” can be resolved if the minister just stops using the airport. Perhaps she can get a lift with Peter Mackay instead of disrupting our service?

  6. As usual the media is biased toward the government and fails to mention the biggist issue in the bc teachers strike, class size and composition are the main stumbling block. No mention of that here just critisism of the teachers. Come on macleans tell the facts please.

    • They did tell the facts, just happens to be the facts the Teachers Fed. doesn’t want the general public to know about. They know public support for the job action would fall off the map if these ridiculous demands were wildly known throughout BC. 
      Thank you Maclean’s for shedding light on a topic that Global BC and CTV don’t have the guts to talk about. BC media seems to care more about stories that revolve around the teachers Federation and BC governments propaganda on the issue rather than putting the facts on paper.

    • IBC,

      With all due respect for 8 months of negotiations class size and composition were not included in any of the discussions. Only the wage increase. Class size was only brought up once Bill-22 was enacted.

  7. Your comments about the student movement in Quebec are asinine.  You fall in with every other coward and austerity apologist  currently harping on about Quebec’s “still low” tuition rate.  Just because the students there had the guts to fight their government for accessible education doesn’t mean you get to write disparaging remarks about it.  The current increases in tuition are an austerity measure to make up for the government spending like a drunken sailor (by reducing capital gains taxes and corporate taxes over the past ten years).  Stop acting as though it’s just a bunch of whiney hippies.  This is a fight about principles of democracy, fair taxation, and education. 

    • You can’t continue to bite the hand that feeds you to pay for your goodies! Capital gains and corporate taxes were lowered to keep Quebec competitive. If you raise them the people and companies leave. Simple as that! Students were not born with the right to post secondary education free of charge. Simple as that. Since Quebec is up to their eyeballs in debt and raising taxes is a long term death sentence what would you suggest stuffer?

      • If reducing capital gains and corporate taxes are so important, do you similarly advocate not funding primary school so that they can be even lower?

        Seriously, not funding education in order to pay for lower corporate taxes is like not turning in a winning lottery ticket because you don’t want to pay the cab fair to get to the lottery offices.

        • Somehow, in education math, overpaid teachers= education excellence.

          • Everybody in this particular thread was talking about tuition. So I have no clue what the hell you’re going on about.

          • Woops, gotta give Thwim his props- I commened on the wrong thread. That said, it isn’t the first time Thwim’s been left clueless.

          • So by this same logic, overpaid university administrators = academic excellence. I know the president of my university, Concordia, gets paid more than the Prime Minister of Canada. That sounds pretty fair, huh? 

            I would happily pay tuition increases if I knew it would get me better facilities and my teachers would be better paid. Problem is the way the government has lined it up is: 35% for loans and bursaries (as an out of province student, why would I see paying into loans and bursaries I won’t have access to as a good thing?), the remaining 65% goes to “quality of teaching” and “keeping universities competitive.” Sounds like they’re going to recruit profs who are more interested in research than teaching who will discover wonderful things, in fancy facilities students don’t have access to so the university can do some fancy add campaign. 

            No thanks, I pay too much already. I have great teachers, more than decent facilities, and I don’t need to be lied to by a corrupt government and financial mismanaging BoG. 

    • SS-”Just because the students there had the guts to fight their government for accessible education doesn’t mean you get to write disparaging remarks about it.”

      Sorry, we didn’t get the memo that allowed cheap Quebec students to suspend freedom of speech. I’m sure it’s in the mail.

  8. Based on the demands cited here, I think BC teachers (or their union negotiators, at least) have been spending too much time consuming BC’s infamous cash crop.

  9. ‘If you think the cost of knowledge is high, try the cost of ignorance.’

    • Another bromide with little to add to this forum. Unless, of course, OE is remarking on teachers’ ignorance of basic economics. In that case, well-played. Well-played indeed.

      •  Education is absolutely vital to the future of this country, and it’s high time our culture valued it and our children.

        • Show me someone who doesn’t value education, and I’ll show you someone on the dole. Again, overpaying teachers doesn’t equal equal excellent education outcomes. It equals too many education graduates looking for too few jobs. Too many graduates because more people want to hit that gravy train, and too few jobs because there are less positions getting paid more money. How does that solve the supposed class size problem?

          • Your whole post devalues education.

            ‘Overpaid’ teachers.

            ‘Useless’ degrees.

            ‘Gravy train’.

            We have lots of jobs, we just don’t have the educated trained people to fill them.

  10. “the editors” belong to the same ilk of people who cheered on Pinkerton riflemen during the early days of the labour movement.

    • A difference being that the Pinkertons were an out-of-pocket expense.
      These days they send in the body-armoured cops at public expense.
      Another subsidy.

  11. Is Cosh ‘the editors’? Since an editorial a few weeks exhorting grannies to get a job,  I think there has been a shift of view of ‘the editors’. Either Cosh is writing the editorials or Maclean’s has a secret right winger who I wish wrote more often for mag. 

  12. Why does this article (like so many other “get back to school/work, shut up, sit down, and let the government screw you over like the rest of the world” articles) argue that as a society we should be paying more for education and not adequately paying those who teach in that system? It’s ridiculous. Provinces should be aiming to be at Quebec’s tuition rate, not for Quebec to be raising their’s to meet the Canadian average. 

    I grew up in BC and know that this is total BS to say that teachers are complaining for no legitimate reason (every time someone who educates the children of a society complains, it’s worth some consideration and respect – that’s what I learned in school). They work hard – think way before school to prep and staying until later at night if they sponsor a student club, coach a team, etc. They work long hours and most of them have to teach summer school to make ends meet. Also, they’re in charge of educating the next generation (aka your children) and it’s awful hard to do that in a class of 35 (which yep, I experienced that impossible class size years ago when I was in high school). The government in Quebec is right, university WILL BE underfunded (it’s financially mismanaged now, take a look at this article -http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/02/02/the-very-short-goodbye/) because they are cutting back the taxes on big business and subsidizing education less. In BC, I don’t know if there’s the same level of corruption but do know it’s a matter of prioritizing. Do you want happy corporations or educated people? Personally I prioritize education and think it’s appalling how governments across Canada are blatantly saying, “No!” to a thoughtful, educated public. But as we all know, an educated society is harder to control than one that shuts up, sits down, and is happy to have the government screw it over without question. 

  13. In almost all situations, unions are fighting to keep what they won earlier. Maybe the unions wouldn’t mind “giving back” some of the things they earlier won, if the rest of society were making sacrifices as well. The government controls the income tax system — why can’t every person with an income of, say, more than $75,000 undergo a five per cent drop in their 2012 income? It could be done. Canadians need to form one big force to protect the rights of ordinary people. http://nickfillmore.blogspot.com/2012/03/part-two-of-three-part-series-what.html

  14. The biggest problem is the income disparity that exists. The next biggest problem has to be union insistance on placing seniority ahead of merit and refusing to acknowledge that management must pursue policies which raise productivity. There are many nonsensical directions pursued by local unions that are very misguided. Only with cooperation between mangement and the unions leading to

    That said, it is also a problem of the lack of union membership. Their are many countries in the world where union membership is mandatory and they seem to be doing ok. Unions woud be well advised to follow a policy of massive membership drives to reach a position that would give them the clout now enjoyed by business 

  15. As a Québec student currently on one of those ”needless strikes”,
    facing a raise in university tuition ”from what is the lowest in Canada to a
    rate that will be… still the lowest in the country”, I’m surprised how
    easily you dismiss the movement and, quite frankly, tired of it. 

    First of all, about the fact that everywhere else in Canada tuition fees
    are higher, I ask; so? what makes the rest of Canada an example to follow? Keep
    in mind we are also the MOST taxed. There is a reason as to why we pay less in
    Québec and a very good one at that. After the Quiet Revolution, many
    generations have fought and decided to opt for a system that strived for
    ”universal” accessibility and abandoned the concept of viewing education as a
    marketable commodity. It is not so much of a debate on numbers and salaries,
    but a debate on ideology. According to
    the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (a pact our
    government has engaged himself in), ”the right to education includes the right
    to free, compulsory primary education for all, an obligation to develop
    secondary education accessible to all, in particular by the progressive
    introduction of free secondary education, as well as an obligation to develop
    equitable access to higher education, ideally by the progressive introduction
    of free higher education. Considering that the QC government pays, through
    our own taxes, mega corporations to come and exploit our resources without
    paying whatsoever in the process, considering many of our universities’ rectors
    make almost half a million dollars, considering that many of our universities
    are subject to inadequate management (and not so much badly financed, like Jean
    Charest likes to claim), considering the co-operation between universities and
    their research sponsors is developing into ‘big business’, I find our position
    very legitimate. Instead of comparing ourselves to other provinces or the US,
    why not compare ourselves to Denmark or Sweden? If you consider this as being ‘absurd’
    and ‘overreaching’, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree…  

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