Why there’s never a place for compromise in collective bargaining.

There’s a common misconception that compromise has a role in the collective bargaining process. But in reality, compromise is never part of the bargaining equation. Here’s why…

While one side (or the other) may be compromised*, deals are never reached through compromise. Instead, collective bargaining reflects the limits of each side’s power (perceived, real, or otherwise) to achieve what it intends. Bargaining is not about finding a middle ground. Rather, it’s about reaching a deal that reflects what each side can attain, given their power and the trade-offs that they are willing to make, and that also serve the common interests of both sides.

Often, during bargaining, it becomes necessary for the sides to demonstrate their power, the price to pay for making gains based on one’s assertions of having the power required to achieve those gains. This is why sometimes there is posturing toward the end of a bargaining round, the means by which each side can ascertain whether or not the other side actually has the power it claims to have.

At the end of this process a deal will be reached, which will always be an agreement to co-operatively work together (in order to achieve certain outcomes that matter to both sides). In public-education, the outcomes include the provision of education on a universally accessible basis.

The outcomes valued by the public are provided through teachers’ work, time, and expertise. These outcomes are provided by teachers (for the public) in exchange for what teacher’s value: Competitive salaries, reasonable working conditions, teachers’ professional autonomy, and the provision of quality education on an equitable basis for all students and communities.

No middle ground, just common ground

If collective bargaining was actually about compromise, then we’d be aiming to reach compromises somewhere at the midpoint between two infinitely opposing points of view. For example, for any (real-world) workforce, the best deal is infinitely higher salaries with never-ending workload reductions. If we got our way, we’d be paid infinity for doing nothing. For the employer, the salary would be zero and the workload would be infinite. Management would have absolute control, and everyone would be happy about it.

There’s not a knowable middle ground between these two extremes. Reaching a compromise between the wishes of each side is therefore not a useful way to frame what really happens between both parties. Instead, collective bargaining is a process of power and trade-offs. Teachers have the power to provide communities with public education. The government has the power to establish and provision public education, to formally recognize the profession, and to pay teacher salaries. Each side does its best to use the power it has to reach the best deal possible, given the trade offs that it is willing to make. (An example of making a trade off is trading time and work, a day at work, for a salary.)

Professional interests

For any professional workforce (including that of public-school teachers), the best deal necessarily includes the profession’s values as well. The teaching profession as a whole has interests, including the interest of ensuring quality practice and providing clear community benefit. Often, these interests require setting entries to practice, establishing requirements for training, and expecting certain standards of practice. Members of a profession also have individual interests, including financial and quality of life benefits that matter to members of a profession.

Some interests are shared. Both the profession as a whole and individual professionals share an interest in ensuring that only qualified professionals are allowed into the workforce, that salaries, job security and working conditions are commiserate with the level of education and training required to enter the profession, and that public-education deliver on its promises.

Public interests

In contrast, for a public sector employer, a best deal would maximize public benefits (the most gains for the least costs). Governments should always want to deliver the best public outcomes at the lowest possible costs. Everyone, after all, appreciates a free ride if possible. But the fact is that government wants to deliver public benefits, such as the benefit of universally provided education, and needs professionals in order to deliver on these benefits. Government knows that it must provide a certain level of salary to attract and retain a workforce to do its bidding, but will also try its best to get a bargain.

At times, government may go overboard and end up shortchanging its own goals by pushing too hard for a bargain, only to find out later that it can’t attract and retain the professionals it needs to deliver (after all, government has a lot of power and control over its own operations and can be prone to overplaying its hand unless held in check). There will always a point between the minimum, what government must spend (to attract enough qualified professionals), and what government is willing to spend (given enough collective, or professional, pressure). One point of bargaining is to find that point, or for a workforce to exercise sufficient power to push government to its actual limit in terms of what it will pay for the expertise a professional workforce provides.

Each side’s power

Ultimately, the government has the power of the public purse, as all government programs are delivered through government-controlled public resources and are aimed at achieving the government’s own public policy aims. In a democracy, these aims must broadly serve the public interest and should result in universal and equitable outcomes. Despite how much power government has, any given professional workforce has the power of its collective labour and knowledge.

Since this labour and knowledge are the only means by which government can actually achieve its priorities, this amounts to considerable power as well. Collective bargaining is the process by which two differing sources of power meet (the power of the purse and the power of work). Out of the merging of these two power sources stem important mutual gains. Students and communities are provided with public education. Teachers are provided competitive salaries, adequate resources, good working conditions, and job security.

The tension that inevitably rises between any workforce and its employer is based on the inherent reciprocity and inherent conflict that’s baked into the working relationship itself. Both sides need each other. Both sides share a common interest. But there’s also conflict, as each side is attempting to maximize its own interests at the same time as it is working together. To work out this tension, each side must have the power to achieve both the common interests and the conflicting interests.

The teaching profession’s power stems first and foremost from the value it provides to communities and individuals. After all, we are the only means by which critical, or powerful, education is provided on the massive scale that only public education can provide. Our unique skills, knowledge, experience, and role delivers caring spaces for human development and provides education on a near-universal basis (we aim for universal). That we provide tremendous value and are a hugely productive and efficient workforce is the main basis for our power. But we also get our power by working together, exercising solidarity across sectors, and being an organized force for good in the community. Through labour power, political power, and economic power we are able to achieve our collective interests.

Don’t replace power with compromise

Our biggest risk as a profession is replacing power with compromise. Compromise stemming from weakness goes beyond a lack of confidence, as self-recognition is always the first step to gaining power. Teachers are already powerful enough to secure competitive salaries, adequate and reasonable working conditions, and to fight for public education.

When we stand firmly on this ground of self-recognition, we can recognize not only our value, but the value that we provide to others. And then we can focus on the power that comes from setting priorities, focusing on core strategies, working together with discipline and focus, holding ourselves collectively to account, setting deadlines, adaptively pursuing our shared interests, building solidarity, and forming effective coalitions that achieve the results we intend.

* being compromised is more than a state of weakness, as to be compromised is to be in a state of weakness that’s due either to (1) a contradiction (i.e. one’s stated aims are merely a premise, and therefore are not aligned with one’s actual, or implicit, aims) or (2) to a conflict of interest