As the world’s best junior hockey players take on the reigning champions in Canada’s capital, a far less noble battle is taking place in the streets of Ottawa.
As if the severe blasts of winter weren’t enough, the local population, thousands of visitors and already beleaguered businesses are being held hostage by striking transit workers. At a time when many private sector workers face pay reductions or job losses, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279 rejected a package that offers a 7-per-cent raise over three years, a $2,000 “productivity bonus” and enhanced rights to “bank” more sick days. The union’s stated reason for holding out is proposed limitations on workers’ ability to set their own schedules. Private sector managers must be astounded to hear that something so basic to ensuring the best customer service for each dollar spent would have ever been handed over to a union in the first place.
In the midst of what is, at least for anyone under the age of 75, the most serious global economic crisis ever experienced, one would think that unionized public sector workers should understand that now is not the time to demand more. Yet, secure in the knowledge that monopoly government employers don’t go bankrupt, no matter how high their costs or how poor their customer service, union leaders callously fight to extract more from beleaguered taxpayers. Their demands include perks that private sector businesses simply couldn’t afford, such as the four week per year paid sick and family leave program that striking administrative and customer service workers at Canada Post are determined to preserve.
The two elements behind the opposition parties’ over-the-top reaction to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s fiscal update in November were elimination of taxpayer funding for political parties and temporary suspension of strike privileges for federal public service unions. Dependency on taxpayer funding was the primary motivation for Liberal and Bloc support of the flawed coalition deal. For the NDP, the driving force was the no-strike provision. But in the face of a need for deficit spending to help private sector workers and businesses survive the economic downturn, what’s wrong with asking politicians and public servants to tighten their belts just like everyone else?
Apparently, big labour thinks it is above such measures, as evidenced by Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti’s response: “How does taking away public employees’ right to strike stimulate the economy?”
Clearly, he doesn’t understand that stimulating the economy is about preserving and creating the jobs that enable other Canadian workers and businesses to survive the downturn so they can continue to pay the taxes that fund his and his members’ salaries.
It isn’t surprising that big labour is intensely focused on the public sector, given that private sector union militancy has pretty much finished off large industrial employers. In the auto sector, we see another example of wages and benefits that have long surpassed levels that allow employers to have a competitive cost structure. As the Detroit Three use their huge lobby power to extract government bailouts, union leaders would have taxpayers believe that the economic crisis is the problem, rather than $70-an-hour pay rates. If that is so, then why were the Detroit Three struggling to avoid bankruptcy during one of the longest global economic booms in history?
An old Chinese proverb states: “One can argue endlessly as to whether a stick is straight or crooked, but the truth is found in laying a straight one alongside it.” Private contracting of public services does exactly that by providing competitively priced services with performance clauses that create real world accountability, including loss of contract. Ottawa’s public transit system, for example, could easily be run on a private contract basis. Of course, fearing the loss of their monopoly stranglehold, labour leaders denounce contracting out as “an attack on working Canadians.” In other words, the only people who count as “working Canadians” are public sector union members.
There have always been two solitudes: the majority of Canadians employed by enterprises where ingenuity, effort, co-operation and attentive customer service keeps them in business, and those in public sector monopolies, whose employer can’t go out of business and whose customers are pawns to be used when striking for more taxpayer largesse. In the face of an extended and unpredictable recession, this selfish “gimme more” behaviour, at a time when private sector workers feel fortunate just to keep their jobs, threatens a new kind of national unity crisis.
But crises create opportunity: In this case, the long overdue opportunity for governments and the general public to stand up to union demands, even when it means enduring strikes and hiring unemployed replacement workers glad just to have a job. It’s also time to end unions’ power to hold Canadians hostage by moving ahead with private sector contracting of government services under terms that will provide real world compensation and accountability.