Saturday, April 26, 2008

Whose system is it, anyway?

Yes, it’s that time again. Time to re-post my award-winning (no, really!) op-ed from 2005, arguing why we should take our public services back from unions.

An interesting wrinkle to the TTC situation is that, in addition to the TTC being a statutorily-protected monopoly, in recent years the City of Toronto has been implementing land use and other policies that are heavily biased against car ownership. So not only do Toronto residents have no other public transit options, they are increasingly unlikely to have their own private transit options (i.e. a car). Thanks, union bosses and socialist politicians!

Take back our public services

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.

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