A Reasonable Proposal: Why Arbitration Makes Sense for Public Sector Employees

On Tuesday the BC Teachers’ Federation and the provincial government reached a tentative deal, ratification of which will end a strike that cost students the last two weeks of classes prior to the summer and the first three weeks of class this year. Prior to the agreement the teachers’ union had voted in favour of ending the strike if the government would agree to binding arbitration (which the government rejected). Public sector workers’ strikes are somewhat odd. Unlike in private sector strikes, the individuals that are hurt most by public sector strikes are not the employers but rather the public itself. Despite this, the public has limited ability to influence the outcome of the strike. The ability of the government, who are also the employers, to legislate workers back to work can also put workers in a precarious position. It can be difficult to negotiate with an employer when you know that employer has the ability to end a strike simply by passing legislation (though it should be noted that the BC government has committed to not using back to work legislation against the BC teachers). Binding arbitration is a tool that should be much more common in public sector employee labour disputes. It provides a way to work around some of the unique characteristics and awkward incentives that exist in public sector strikes.

The difference in who is affected by a strike is a key one between public sector and private sector strikes. In private sector strikes labour is able to hurt the employer by striking. If workers refuse to work than the company cannot operate and ends up losing out on profits. The reasonable hope on the part of labour is that if the employer loses enough money they will have an incentive to give in to some of labour’s demands. The same does not hold for public sector strikes because public sector organizations are rarely in the business of making a profit. If anything the BC government stands to benefit from a strike in the short term because they save money on having to pay teacher’s salaries. It is the public that ends up suffering the consequences of a public sector strike when key services, in the case education, are disrupted. The public, however, has very little ability to make the employer (or for that matter labour) go to the bargaining table and work out an agreement. This is especially the case if a government has a long time before they have to call an election, as is the case with Christy Clark’s Liberal government in BC. Clark’s Liberals have plenty of time to recover from losses in popularity due to the strike, and the public has few other mechanisms to force the Liberal government to compromise with teachers. The people hurt most by public sector strikes are often the people who have the least ability to force compromise in order to reach an agreement.

The way that strikes impact the public also affect the the justifications that public sector unions present in defence of their action. Because the harms of a strike are experienced largely by the public and not the employer, there is often an expectation that public sector unions’ justify strikes not only in terms of their own best interest but also in terms of the public’s interest as well. This is why teachers’ strikes are often accompanied by arguments by teachers about how students will be better off with demands that they are making- such as demands for smaller class sizes. This is an expectation that private sector unions rarely face and which goes beyond the purposes of unions. Rarely would a union like the autoworker’s union be expected to explain why job action makes society or a car manufacturer better off. Unions exist to defend the interests of their members because, without them, employers can exert disproportionate pressure on labour to accept low wages and poor working conditions. Public sector workers deserve to protect their interests as much as private sector workers do, and unions should not be expected to subordinate their interests to the goals of the employer. Serving the public should not mean that teachers or any other set of public workers should lose the ability to make demands for fair pay and reasonable work loads and conditions.

Binding arbitration presents a way for governments and unions to get out of the awkward incentives that public sector disputes present. It forces the government to come to the bargaining table when there can be limited incentives for them to do so otherwise. It also protects labour from back-to-work legislation which, while not being used by the BC government with teachers, is often used by governments in order to end strikes in which they feel labour is unlikely to succeed. At the same time arbitration does not mean that the government ends up conceding to labour’s demands. Having an arbitrator hear the cases for government and for the teachers and reaching a compromise between the two allows a compromise to be reached that balances the interests of both of the actors that are involved. Employees will not be able to win all of their demands, but at the same time the government will not be able to try to avoid negotiation while passing the costs of doing so onto the public.

During the teachers’ strike the BC government took a clear position against the use of arbitration. One of the major reasons that they used to support this decision is the concern that binding arbitration takes control over the costs of raises in teachers’ salaries (and costs associated with limits to class sizes) out of the governments’ hands. If binding arbitration leads to increased salaries for teachers or reduced class sizes the costs of education to the government increase. In response the government would either have to cut funding to other programs, raise taxes, or borrow to cover the additional cost. None of these options are likely to be popular with the public. It should not however be the job of a public sector union to make sure that the government can balance the budget. The public are the ones that benefit from public sector employees’ labour and therefore it is the public, through the government, that should be responsible for providing teachers with fair compensation for their labour. If this forces the government into difficult decisions about tax increases or cuts to other programs than those decisions are the obligation of the government not the responsibility of the union. In the same way that one would not expect a autoworkers to take a pay cut in order to help an auto manufacturer increase its profits, one should not expect teachers or other public sector workers to accept low wages and higher workloads (in the form of increased class sizes) in order to make the government’s job of balancing the budget easier. There are of course limits to this, it would be unreasonable to expect the government to accept teachers’ demands without limits, but that is where arbitration comes in. Having an arbitrator mediate the dispute means that the outcome is likely to be as close an approximation to fair wages and working conditions as one can expect to achieve. The government and the public owe it to their employees to pay them fair value for their services even if doing so means having to find ways to increase government revenue or make savings elsewhere.

Public sector strikes are fundamentally different from private sector strikes because of the different incentives that actors, particularly the employer faces. The ability of governments to off-load the costs of labour disruption onto the public, or to legislate workers back to work creates a negotiating environment that unduly harms the interests of the employees or the public as a whole. Binding arbitration may serve as a way for governments and government employees to avoid the kind of acrimonious strike and service disruption that occurred during the BC teachers’ strike.


Blackmail Voting: Why Strategically Voting for Third and Fourth Parties can Make Sense

Discussion of strategic voting and wasted votes is common in Canadian electoral politics. The first past the post system can often leave voters frustrated, votes cast for candidates that finish third or worse have limited effect on the composition of parliament, leaving many to feel that their vote has no impact on government. For this reason, strategic voting is often discussed as individuals vote for their second or third preference party in order to defeat their least preferred party. In a close race between the Liberals and the Conservatives, New Democrats might vote for the Liberal party in the hopes of preventing a Conservative victory. There is another, somewhat counter-intuitive way that one might approach strategic voting. One could vote for a single issue party with no chance of winning in the hopes of signalling one’s preference to other parties and ultimately pushing them to change their policies. For some voters casting a strategic a vote for a party like the Green Party can make sense, even if that party will finish third or worse in the voter’s riding.

Parties have strong incentives to move to the centre of the political spectrum in two party races. In order for parties to win they have to find policies that appeal to undecided voters who are usually moderate in their policy preferences. Parties can also feel secure that their supporters with preferences further from the centre will continue to support them because this voters do not have an alternative. The Conservative Party can become increasingly moderate and not fear the loss of less moderate right wing voters because there is no major party to the right of the Conservatives. The result of this is that two-party systems tend to see parties cluster around the middle of the political spectrum. Traditional strategic voting, which commits voters will less moderate positions to support to a “lesser of two evils” moderate party, can limit the ability of less moderate voters to influence the positions that parties take. They might be able to prevent the party they like the least from getting into government, but they have limited ability to get the policy outcomes that they prefer.

Voting for third and fourth parties can, over the long term, offer these voters a way to influence the positions that parties take. When there are viable third and fourth parties on the flanks of moderate parties, moderate parties have to be far more careful about moving the centre. Doing so can cost them the votes of less moderate supporters. Environmental politics offers a good example of how this might work. Without the Green Party, the Liberals and the NDP have to adopt only marginally stronger environmental policies than the Conservatives in order to be the “least bad” alternative for voters with a strong commitment to environmental protection. The presence of a Green Party changes the strategic calculus for the Liberals and the NDP. They can no longer simply outdo the Conservatives on environmental policy, but they also have to demonstrate that they are sufficiently strong in that policy area to convince voters not to defect to the Greens. The more people defect from the Liberals and the NDP to the Greens, the greater the incentive the Liberals and the NDP have to adjust their environmental policies in order to win those voters back.

Voting for third parties can also be a way for voters to try to force parties to talk about issues they may otherwise try to avoid. Environmental politics can create difficult dilemmas for left-wing parties such as the NDP. On one hand there are substantial numbers left-wing voters that favour strong environmental policies. On the other hand, environmental policies such as carbon taxes or stronger industry regulations can have negative impacts on low income and working class individuals. The NDP has to walk a careful line between supporting environmental regulations that cater to its environmentalist supporters and avoiding imposing costs on low income and working class voters concerned with the economic ramifications of regulations. The incentive for the NDP is to downplay the importance of the environment to avoid exposing this conflict in their base. The less they have to talk about the environment the less they have to choose sides on this issue. A challenge from an environmental party like the Green Party can force the issue back onto the agenda. The presence of a substantial Green Party raises the threat that the NDP might lose environmentalist supporters. This forces them not only to change their policies, but also to make environmental issues a larger part of their campaign and legislative agenda than they might have otherwise.

There are three caveats that should be placed on the idea of strategically voting for third and fourth parties. The first is that voters choosing this strategy have to care more about the policies that are adopted by parties and governments more than they care about who gets into government. The goal of this strategy is to try to influence policy by changing the incentives that parties face in elections rather than trying to change the party in power. A necessary consequence of this is that voters will have to relinquish some ability to influence the party that gets into government. A benefit to this though is that the more parties that a third or fourth party can appear to threaten, the more influence that the party can wield over policy. A Green Party that can credibly threaten to take voters from the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP can exert more influence over policy than a Green Party that can only credibly threaten to take voters from the NDP. As a third or fourth party draws votes from a greater range of parties, changing the party in power becomes less important to getting the policy changes that that party is seeking.

The second caveat that should be placed on this strategy is that it works best over the long term. Ultimately strategic voters supporting a third or fourth party are trying to cause short term pain to moderate parties in order try to change their policies over the long term. This may result in those parties losing elections in the short term. Indeed the influence of a third or fourth party becomes stronger if they can show that they can cause a moderate party to lose an election. Individuals that try to blackmail a moderate party into changing their policy will have to live with governments that do not always reflect their preferences in the hopes that they can change the dynamics of the party system over the long term.

A final caveat is that this strategy probably works best for voters who care about a particular issue. A third or fourth party like the Green Party may be able to push competitors to change their positions in a single policy area, such as the environment. It is much harder to try to get parties move the overall ideological bent of their platform. Adopting stricter environmental policies to win over a few more voters is a much more reasonable proposition for a moderate party than trying to restructure large portions of their platform to respond to such a challenge. The more policies a party has to change to respond to a challenger, the more the moderate party risks losing its current voters over those issues.

I remember quite clearly the first campaign that I ever volunteered on. At the end of a losing campaign, the candidate remarked that if we could just convince the Green Party voters to support us in the next election, that we would stand a good chance of winning. Candidates and parties are cognizant of the votes that they lose to third and fourth party candidates. Supporting such a party can send a clear signal to moderate parties about how they have to adjust their policy in order to be successful in the next election.


Be Careful Counting Chickens: Three Reasons the Liberals Should be Cautious About their Recent Polling Success

When it comes to polls the federal Liberals have had plenty to be happy about. Throughout the summer they have maintained a healthy lead over the Conservatives, with some polls even putting them in the majority government range. This has been a significant reversal from their third place finish in the 2011 election. There is, however, a long way to go until October 2015 and a lot might happen to change Liberal fortunes. The Liberals should be cautious about these recent numbers for three reasons: the degree to which past polls have under-predicted incumbent vote share, the effect that increased scrutiny might have on their support, and the difficulty they will face competing as a centre party in the 2015 election.

The inaccuracy of polls has become a bit of a refrain in Canadian politics over the past few years. Polling predictions have been disappointing in a couple of recent provincial elections including the 2013 British Columbia election, the 2012 Alberta elections, and the 2012 Quebec election. Federally polls have not faired particularly well either. In 2011 pollsters accurately predicted the growth of the NDP and fall in support of the Liberal party, but under-predicted the Conservative vote share putting it around 35% instead of at the 39% that they actually received. That margin may have been the difference between a minority and majority government. In 2008 as well polls had the Conservatives below the 38% they received in that election. Given these inaccuracies it is tempting to dismiss the results of polls outright, but there may still be something to the numbers. The errors in both the provincial and federal polls have consistently been in the same direction, under-predicting the incumbent’s vote share. This has not always meant the more right-wing party has benefited. In the 2012 Alberta election the Progressive Conservatives were under-predicted vis a vis the more right-wing Wildrose Alliance and in 2012 in Quebec the federalist/centrist Liberal party was under-predicted vis a vis the separatist Parti Quebecois and more right of centre Coalition Avenir Quebec (the Liberals did lose the 2012 election but not by the large margins predicted). The reasons incumbents are doing better than polls expect are unclear. It may be that voters are more willing to tell pollsters that they are ready to vote against the government but don’t follow through when they get into the voting booth. It could also be that individuals are reluctant to tell pollsters they support an unpopular incumbent, but are willing to cast their ballots for them when voting in secret. Finally these inaccuracies may be a function of the turn-out models and sampling strategies that some pollsters use, though I have yet to see evidence that a particular sampling strategy or weighting method has consistently avoided the errors of recent years. Regardless of what is responsible for the polling failures, their errors give one reason to believe that the Liberal lead may not be as large as the polls suggest.

The second reason that the Liberals should be cautious about their polling numbers has to do with the way that media scrutiny increases during elections. This increased scrutiny is likely to benefit the Conservatives in two ways. First, the Liberals are going into their first election with Trudeau as leader while it will be Harper’s fifth election as leader of the Conservatives. In their book on the 2012 U.S. election, The Gamble, Johns Sides and Lynn Vavreck noted a trend in the Republican primary where new candidates would be “discovered” by the media as their poll numbers increased and then see their numbers fall as they were subject to increased scrutiny by the media*. The candidate that was immune from this pattern was Mitt Romney, who had contested the Republican primary in the previous Presidential election. The fact that Romney had run in a previous election meant that there was much less about him to discover in the 2012 primary, and so his support was less sensitive to changes in the favourability of his media coverage. American primaries are obviously quite a bit different from Canadian general elections, but there is a general concept that should apply to both cases. A large amount of criticism of Harper would have come up in previous elections. It is unlikely that we are going to find out that Harper is a bad debater or about a scandal from Harper’s past in the coming election. For better or for worse, Harper is a know quantity. The story is different for Trudeau. He has not been subject to the same high degree of scrutiny as Harper has in previous elections, and so there is an increased chance that scrutiny will uncover problems with Trudeau’s leadership or policy ideas. These problems do not have to be scandals, it may be that Trudeau is exposed as a poor debater or weak in particular policy areas. Because less is known about Trudeau, it is more likely that the poll numbers for his party will shift as the changes in the tone of media coverage expose things about him that were not well know before.

The other scrutiny advantage that Harper has comes from the fact that he is currently in government. Outside of an election campaign the media will apply much greater scrutiny to a governing party than to an opposition one. Scandals in government affect the way that policy is delivered and are more interesting than scandals within opposition parties who have limited control over what happens to the country. That changes during an election campaign as opposition parties begin to be treated more like potential governments, and the media becomes more interested in problems with them. This is especially the case if polls make it look highly likely that an opposition party might win the election. None of this is to say that the government is immune from scandal during an election, just that we are probably as likely to hear about a government scandal or problem at any time between elections, while we are more likely to hear bad things about opposition parties during elections. As a result, Conservative polling numbers should be a lot closer to their floor than Liberal numbers. The Liberals probably have further to fall than the Conservatives do.

The final reason the Liberals should be cautious lies in their position on the left-right spectrum and what it means for the strategies that the Conservatives and NDP are likely to pursue. Because Liberal voters are generally in the centre of the political spectrum, it easier for both the Conservatives and NDP to grow by stealing Liberal voters than each other’s voters. Even in ridings that are close NDP-Conservative races, it is likely easier for either party to convince a Liberal voter supporting a third place candidate to move a little over to the right (in the Conservative case) or to the left (in the case of the NDP) than it is to convince a NDP voter to switch all the way over to the Conservative party or vice versa. As a result, the Liberals should expect to be the focus of attacks from both the Conservatives and the NDP. They can also expect the Conservatives to take policy positions designed to appeal to centre-right Liberals, pulling them away from the Liberal party, and the NDP to do the same with respect to centre-left Liberals. Traditionally the Liberals have been able to avoid this predicament by emphasizing issues off of the left-right spectrum in elections. In the 1960s and 1970s the Liberals were the defenders of Quebec’s place within Canada, in 1988 they were the party that stood against free-trade (which was needed for the to stave off a quite serious NDP challenge prior to that election), and in the 1990s and early 2000s they were the defenders of national unity and a strong federal government. Given the focus of recent elections on left-right politics though, it is unclear what issues the Liberals might be able to leverage to move the focus of the 2015 election away from the left-right spectrum. Even if the parties had equal resources, and it is likely the Conservatives have more, the Liberal party will have to match the campaigns of both the Conservatives and the NDP, while those parties can concentrate primarily on the task of winning over Liberal voters. This puts the Liberals at a disadvantage when it comes to holding on to the gains that they have made since 2011 during an election.

None of this is definitive. Over the course of the next year the Conservatives could dig themselves into a bigger hole (especially if the senate scandal gets worse) and the Liberals could run a clean an effective campaign in 2015 that simultaneously holds off both the NDP and Conservatives. They are in a difficult position though, and there current lead in the polls does not diminish the challenges that they will face in 2015.

* Sides, John and Lynn Vavreck. (2013). The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. Princeton: Princeton University Press.