Opinion-Policy Nexus

Each year, I begin my Introduction to Canadian politics course at Laurier by describing the prisoner’s dilemma.

In this model, two men, Bob and Jack are arrested for drug trafficking.  They are put into separate rooms and are told the following:

“If you testify against your partner, and he stays silent, you go free and your partner gets 10 years.

If your partner talks and you stay silent, then you get 10 years and he goes free.

If you both talk, you both get 8 years.

If you both stay silent, then you will each get 1 year on the lesser charge of possession.”

The optimal strategy in this situation is to cooperate and stay silent.  But what usually happens

is that the suspects do not cooperate.  Instead, they choose the rational strategy, which is to rat each other out.  Why? Because no matter what the other person does, it pays more to not cooperate.

Recently, supply teachers from a school board in southern Ontario have been caught in a prisoner’s dilemma.

The dilemma is this: Some principals apparently have been asking supply teachers to teach more classes per day than what is stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement. The optimal response for these teachers is to say no, since teaching more classes per day means: a) they are doing free work; and b) they are doing more work than their peers who are currently employed in permanent positions.

Rather than choosing the optimal strategy of cooperation by collectively saying no, however, teachers are individually choosing to say yes.  Why? Some teachers indicate that if they say no, that they will be at a disadvantage when permanent jobs come up.  Others fear that they may be blacklisted from future supply work if they say something to the principal or the union.   In short, teachers are choosing the rational strategy, rather than the optimal one.

Another example of this situation is the informal requirement that prospective teachers volunteer in a school before applying for a job.  The optimal choice for these teachers is to not volunteer, but the rational choice is to volunteer. Not volunteering is the optimal choice because teaching candidates shouldn’t have to work for free for a year after they completed their degree, especially when their studies already included a lengthy placement at two schools.

Yet the rational choice, and the choice that teachers almost always choose, is to volunteer – Why? Apparently, some school administers seem to favour teachers who have volunteered at their schools over those who have not.

In both cases, the principals and the teachers are to blame for the suboptimal choices being made.  Principals are guilty for taking advantage of the plethora of unemployed teachers by extracting more work for less or no pay while teachers are also guilty for allowing principals to take advantage of them.

What’s the solution? Establishing institutions that facilitate collective action (and especially information sharing) among teachers and that discourage principals from engaging in these unfair practices.


Chris, this is interesting; thanks for the insight. Would you agree that there are important contextual factors that created the situation in the first place. I can think of two: the lifting of mandatory retirement and the increased enrolment in teachers' college, through the 2000s, both of which have led to the skewed relationship between supply of qualified teachers and the demand for them. Would this not be an important cause of the principals' behaviour? That is, aren't they just acting rationally in that situation, i.e. getting more labour for less? I grant that this is a little beyond the strict boundaries of the problem you defined, but you did raise solutions to the situation. Would addressing the supply / demand imbalance lessen the opportunity for principals to take advantage of supply teachers in this way? Just a couple of thoughts. S.

The teaching world is anything but rational. As Dr. Kiss pointed out above, there is a massive supply of teachers with little to no demand for more. And yet, teacher salaries continue to go up, as do the number of teacher candidates. One could argue this is heavily influenced by the very institutions that bring about collective action among teachers: the unions. Their desire for better working conditions consistently raises the benefit of being a teacher, which has probably influenced the number of young teachers and teacher candidates.

I suppose the dilemma would not disappear if unions did not exist. Young teachers would still desire more experience and favoritism from principals, while principals would still desire free work from young teachers.

I agree with Dr. Kiss that the problem likely has more to do with supply vs. demand rather than the ability to act collectively. Acting collectively - labour negotiations - are arguably what got the teachers into this mess in the first place. Increasing requirements for entrance into Faculties of Education and reducing the number of teacher candidates over time would be more likely to balance the playing field.

From what I understand of your description of the prisoner's dilemma, isn't the actual party at fault the principal? They may desire to have more labor for less, but if they are requiring supply teachers to violate the terms of a CBA, aren't they causing the problem?

"The dilemma is this: Some principals apparently have been asking supply teachers to teach more classes per day than what is stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement. The optimal response for these teachers is to say no, since teaching more classes per day means: a) they are doing free work; and b) they are doing more work than their peers who are currently employed in permanent positions."

Regardless of supply v. demand, salary, unions etc., these agreements are in place. If principals are showing favoritism to supplys who are feeling pressured to teach extra days in order to avoid hurting their chances of future employment, are the principals not rigging the game? You get into some heavy Nash math once cheating comes into play on one side of the equation or the other.

Regardless, management shouldn't be able to violate a CBA just because they feel like it and everyone else is doing it.


I agree that the lifting of mandatory retirement and the rise in the number of teachers contributed to the problem. But addressing those two issues would not solve the behaviour I described in my post either in the short term or maybe even in the long term. If you reintroduced mandatory retirement and reduced the number of spots in teacher colleges tomorrow, the same type of behaviour would continue I think. As well, since these practices (at least so I have been told) have been occurring for some time, they've probably become institutionalized and therefore would be difficult to change, unless there was a severe shortage of supply and new teachers, which is unlikely.

I still think the solution is to facilitate better information sharing and collective action among teachers, which in turn should lead to more optimal strategies and perhaps better institutional action from the teacher unions towards offending principals. But as always, context is important (t'was ever so)!

Dear Chris,

Better informing teachers as to their obligations and responsibilities under their collective agreements is not the solution. Members who know the rules regarding the work day hour limit, continue to teach beyond them due to the hope of future daily occasional work, or work on a more permanent basis. As one administrator put this dilemma to me " isn't it strange that occasional teachers who violate the collective agreement are those who are getting called back and being offered permanent positions, while those who follow the collective agreement and ruffle feathers of administrators by refusing to work outside the work day hours defined by the collective agreement do not."
Unless there is a penalty in place for administrators who knowingly and continually violate a collective agreement, I believe this practice of assigning workloads beyond the hours specified in the collective agreement will continue. In the Upper Grand District School Board, for example, all employee time sheets for occasional teachers are submitted to the board office for review. Any time there is a violation, a huge fine is imposed. Here there are just a handful of violations - most likely happening in emergency situations only.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 07:31