Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Take back our public services

In light of recent events, I thought it would be timely to re-post an updated version of this op-ed, which won third place in last fall's Western Standard editorial contest.

In Montreal, a city roads crew was caught spending just six minutes of its nine-hour shift fixing three potholes. In British Columbia, teacher unions are contemplating another illegal strike, just four months after their last one. In Ontario, CUPE President Sid Ryan threatened that municipal workers who clean schools, plow roads and pick up garbage would walk off the job, in protest against the McGuinty government's pension legislation. (A last-minute resolution averted the wildcat strike.)

Organized labour has some clever slogans about all the good it has done for society, such as “Unions: the people who brought you the weekend.” But what have they done for us lately?

Think of the state of our roads, the quality of our education and health care, the cleanliness of our streets. The overall tax burden has grown, but this has hardly been matched by an increase in the quality of government services. Yet the wages and benefits of public sector workers continue to rise. Of course they do: by their very nature, public sector unions tend to drive up the costs and size of government. Union dues – themselves a cost driver – go to employ officials whose full-time work consists of filing grievances, lobbying the government for more workers, coordinating with other unions and supporting sympathetic candidates.

Much of the impetus for contracting out the delivery of public services stems from roadblocks faced by politicians attempting to meet the demands of taxpayers or deliver on good-faith election promises. Unions label such activity "privatization," but it's not. From their point of view, it's de-unionization. Scratch the surface of any of the recent campaigns against health care reform, and you will find that most are organized and funded by unions. They oppose health care reform because they are afraid it will result in new services or facilities outside the current unionized health care sphere.

Of course, nothing is preventing unions from attempting to organize workers in non-unionized facilities, but after 30-odd years of public sector unionization, a sense of entitlement takes hold. And it's easier to protect existing union turf by holding citizens and politicians hostage through work-to-rule and illegal strikes, than to convince non-unionized workers it's worth handing over part of their paycheques to Sid Ryan et al.

Since public servants began to unionize, the public has gradually lost control of its public services. Some have argued for outlawing strikes by teachers and other public sector workers, but this would be mere tinkering. The only way for the public to take back control of the services it owns is by decertifying public sector unions and restoring a direct employment relationship between government workers and democratically elected governments. Here’s why it makes sense:

Once the public has decided that a particular service is to be provided by the government, then that service is, by definition, essential. Many try to make a distinction between services that relate to safety and other government services. But public schools, transit and most other public services are legally or effectively monopolies, in that most citizens have no practical alternative when those services are not available.

Public sector collective agreements take away the public’s democratic right to decide what public services are to be delivered and what terms of employment are to be offered (provided those terms comply with employment standards laws and the common law). The wages, benefits and working conditions of public sector workers should be open to the democratic process as are all other aspects of government. They should not be decided in backrooms in negotiations from which the public is barred and on which the public’s elected representatives are forbidden to comment.

It is not the role of government to engage in unfair labour competition with the private sector. Some people think it is noble for the government to “set an example” for the private sector through higher wages and benefits. Such people don’t understand economics. The increasing taxes that those business will have to pay to support the government’s “example” mean that they will be hard-pressed to pay the employees they already have, let alone pay them more.

Thousands of private firms have policies and procedures for dealing fairly with employees; so would a union-free public sector. If the public through their elected government provides wages, benefits and working conditions that can’t compare with private employers’, then it will find itself with fewer and less capable employees.

Public sector workers would continue to be free to advocate for themselves through the democratic process. But those who interfere with the provision of government services will, like private sector workers, be subject to the appropriate civil or criminal sanctions. Those who fail to show up for work will not be "on strike," they will have quit.

Let’s put the “public” back into the public sector, by putting citizens and their elected representatives back in charge of our public services.


Robert McClelland said...

Wow, it's amazing how that as union power wanes in this country their ability to destroy it grows exponentially. What an idiot. Non-union workers are slackers too. I mean, how many non-union workers do you think are reading your blog on the company's dime right now?

Brian Lemon said...

Am not able to interpret previous comment - I don't think I agree, but don't know. I think he called himself an idiot, but I'm not sure.

Good luck with the crusade, Joan. It would be great to fire the whole buncha them (like the Air Traffic Controllers in USA under RR). But it just won't happen.

The best chance was under Mike Harris, and he couldn't pull it off.

I think our next chance will be when the City of Toronto goes broke (not too far off) and the province has to make some real hard decisions.

primvs pilvs said...

Government should ONLY be involved in the delivery of essential services and essential services should not be allowed to strike, unionized or not. It's supposed to be public SERVICE maybee these people could think about that for a change instead of the same old story that if you don't give them a big enough raise then you don't value them.

Anonymous said...

The purpose of a union is to extort from the employer more compensation than the market would otherwise bare.

The best way to do that is make sure there is no or very little market competition. That worked in automotive for a long time but the Big 3 are almost bankrupt because management was too stupid to notice Toyota wasn’t unionized.

“The last picture show” on unions is the monopolistic public sector. Here again the story is about no competition and therefore the ability for a CUPE park grass mower to earn $17 an hour when it should be a no skills minimum wage job.

Unions are finished. Outsourcing is in. But the timing is difficult to predict. When is the taxpayer is going to revolt and kick Mayor David Miller and the rest of the apparatchiks out so we can pick up where Mike Harris left off?
I guess the biggest area to watch is Health Care as the monopoly starts to break down in Alberta and Quebec.


Anonymous said...

PSAC isn't having too much fun in their strike with BHP at the Ekati Diamond mine. They made some very poor strategic decisions (calling a strike before a scheduled business slowdown and when the mine is 15% short of fuel for the year)and now are trying their standard political tactics of screaming discrimination and trying to smear their opponent in the media.
They oviously don't understand business.

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