Friday, June 27, 2014

“I don't have benefit X, so why should my taxes pay for teachers to have benefit X?”

In the debates over the B.C. teacher’s strike and the circumstances surrounding it, one very common sentiment I am reading and hearing is “I don't have benefit X, so why should my taxes pay for teachers to have benefit X?” I am trying to understand this perspective, and it seems it could arise out of a couple possible attitudes:

Attitude 1: “Teachers don’t do enough in their work to justify these benefits.”

Attitude 2: “Benefits shouldn’t vary according to your job.”

Let’s take Attitude 1 (“Teachers don’t do enough in their work to justify these benefits.”) first. I suspect many of the commenters have this attitude. I mostly suspect this because I rarely hear similar complaints about other public sector employees such as police, nurses, transit, government workers, etc. Perhaps it is simply more obvious to the general public that police and nurses have value. People interact with nurses and know that nurses are working for their own best interest. People know that police are put in dangerous situations and are responsible for maintaining order. Do people ever accuse police of being greedy for wanting good pay and benefits? Perhaps, but I am not hearing it.

In contrast, many people probably have a vague idea of what happens in a classroom and what responsibilities teachers have. To some, it seems like glorified childcare. They may not understand the preparation that goes into teaching, or the late nights and weekends spent marking. They also may not realize the many years of schooling that each teacher has completed to get to where they are. In short, teaching does not seem to be a respected profession in North America.

Attitude 2 (“Benefits shouldn’t vary according to your job.”) is more interesting, and seems more defensible. This is actually a very familiar argument in the United States, where your healthcare has traditionally been tied to your workplace. This may have made sense historically, but is not convenient if you want to change or leave your job. And if healthcare is a basic human right, this attitude makes some sense. Why should some people have better care? But it seems that people with this attitude would be better off arguing for better benefits for all, rather than trying to reduce the benefits of some because of perceived unfairness. Should we all have equally crappy benefits, and then everyone will be happy?

You may have noticed that Attitudes 1 and 2 are basically in opposition to each other, with the first implying that benefits should vary according to the value of the work, and the second saying that they shouldn’t. It’s interesting then that they can both lead to the same question of “I don't have benefit X, so why should my taxes pay for teachers to have benefit X?”

In B.C., we have a system that mediates between those two tensions. Everyone has a basic level of care through MSP, and that can be topped up by an employer extended plan or you can purchase an extended plan. The scope of your employer coverage (whether your employer is public or private) is going to correlate with other types of compensation like salary. There are big inequalities in all of these types of compensation, leading to disputes about executive salaries, poverty wages, raising the minimum wage, expanded drug coverage, etc. I would suggest that a lot of the energy in this debate would be better spent advocating for living wages and expanded MSP coverage, rather than resenting what teachers have or want in terms of wages and benefits. And I think you can let go of that resentment by talking to teachers and spending some time thinking about what they actually do every day.

P.S. It’s possible that there is a third attitude lurking behind all of this:

Attitude 3: “All of these public sector positions should be privatized.”

Indeed, many critics of Christy Clark are accusing her of wanting to privatize education in B.C. That will have to be the subject of another post.