With public workers on strike in Toronto, it’s that time again. Time to re-post my award-winning (from the Western Standard) column about why we need to taking back control of our public services by getting unions out of the public sector.
Allowing monopoly services to be arbitrarily shut down is an early 20th-century concept that needs to be left back there.
Take back our public services
first posted November 2005
In Toronto, police cruisers sit parked outside a downtown police station, the police union having decided to stop patrolling. In British Columbia, teachers continue their illegal strike into its second week, idling 600,000 students and precipitating countless child care crises.
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. Since public servants began to unionize, the people have gradually lost control of their 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 accord 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.
Let’s put the “public” back into the public sector, by putting citizens and their elected representatives back in charge of our public services.