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OPINION: For teachers, collective bargaining plays corrective role in marketplace

The market for teachers is anything but competitive. Rather, it is a classic example of a monopsony — a labour market with a single employer (in this case, the province). Facing no competition, monopsonies can drive their employees’ wages considerably below their productive value. What protects workers from this? Collective bargaining.
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Around 150 people gathered at Grand Parade for a rally in support of teachers earlier this month. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)

By JAMES SAWLER

With Nova Scotia’s public school teachers rejecting, again, the province’s latest contract offer, the government plans to force through legislation to impose a contract. Although Stephen McNeil's Liberal government claims there is no alternative, basic economic principles undercut this violation of our teachers’ labour rights.

In well-functioning, competitive labour markets, workers are paid according to the value they create for their employer. Consider the market for accountants in a large city with many employers. If an employer pays accountants less than their value, it will struggle to retain their services, as competing employers profit from hiring these accountants away at a higher wage. Thus, competition helps ensure that workers are paid a fair wage — close to the value they provide their employers. Even then, labour market “frictions” such as moving costs and specialized training enable employers to pay lower wages.

The market for teachers, however, is anything but competitive. Rather, it is a classic example of a monopsony — a labour market with a single employer (in this case, the province). Facing no competition, monopsonies can drive their employees’ wages considerably below their productive value. What protects workers from this monopsony power? Collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining is an essential democratic institution that helps countervail monopsonies’ power and bring wages closer to their fair market value. It is society’s principal means to improve the functioning of monopsonistic labour markets and to ensure workers are paid reasonably fair wages. Thus, by imposing a contract on the teachers, the McNeil government is undermining the market-correcting, collective bargaining process.

But the government claims the province is too poor to offer the teachers a better deal. This claim is, simply, false. Four years since gaining power, the McNeil government continues to cling to its tired, refuted austerity mantra. According to December data, the province’s operating account is in surplus. Projected economic growth and inflation will easily generate more than enough additional revenue to pay teachers wage increases that cover the rising cost of living and to make much-needed investments to support their efforts to educate our children. None of these investments would jeopardize the province’s finances.

Instead, the province plans to impose a contract that will substantially reduce teachers’ purchasing power and offer almost nothing to improve teaching / learning conditions in the classroom.

How will this contract affect education in Nova Scotia? In the short term, teachers will continue to do the best they can as professionals working under a dysfunctional system. Problems will remain unaddressed, but, we hope, not too many teachers will be driven to leave the profession prematurely.

The long-run implications are more serious. Education depends on the quality of our future teachers. We need to attract the most motivated and brightest of our young people into the teaching profession. Unfortunately, the government’s dismissive treatment of teachers is hardly attractive to potential future teachers.

Teachers in Nova Scotia invested many years acquiring highly specialized training, and many have spent decades gaining practical experience educating our children. Our teachers are a valuable resource, but with very few exceptions, they have no choice but to work for a monopsony — a provincial government that does not appreciate teachers’ value and is prepared to abuse its power to preserve a misguided austerity agenda.

Let’s hope Premier McNeil does more “soul-searching” and allows the collective bargaining process to resume — without the threat of an imposed contract.

James Sawler is associate professor in the economics department at Mount Saint Vincent University



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