Canada’s Growing Public Sector Labour Crisis

Commentary, Public Sector, Robert Murray

Canada’s public sector is entering into a crisis state with its labour relations processes.  For far too long, Canadians have watched their governments enter into bad agreements at a high price to taxpayers, and now that various levels of government can no longer afford the deals they have signed in the past, the labour rights of public sector employees are being altered, in many cases without appropriate consultation or justification. 

The effort by governments to curtail or eliminate public sector labour rights comes from two sources.  One is the 2008 global recession that has had a significant impact on governments at all levels.  Fearing credit downgrades and knowing that their budgets will be fixed or decreased, governments know that they need to make radical changes to labour agreements and workers’ rights to save money. 

A second source governments have not highlighted is the lesson learned from the 2011 situation in Wisconsin.  Due to a very serious budgetary shortfall, the state government passed Bill 11, which removed public sector unions’ from being able to bargain collectively over pensions and health care, limited pay raises , ended the automatic collection of union dues, and forced unions to certify annually, among other draconian things. 

Of course, the reactions to Wisconsin’s Bill 11 were widespread, as protestors from both the left and the right took to the streets in confrontations with police over the sweeping changes to labour relations imposed by the bill. 

In the Canadian context we are beginning to see efforts to make similar changes at the federal and provincial levels, as many see an advantage to limiting the power of public sector unions.  The Government of Alberta recently introduced Bills 45 and 46, both of which seek to limit public sector workers’ abilities to strike illegally and empowers the government to unilaterally impose a contract on public sector workers if an agreement cannot be reached by January.  Ontario’s education sector received widespread attention with the passage of the 2012 Putting Students First Act imposed contracts sector-wide, despite the massive opposition by both the majority of unions and school boards.  The excuse given by the government was that the Act was essential due to budgetary constraints, though this justification disappeared within 6 months as the government enhanced agreements by magically finding new money.  Lastly, the federal government is proposing drastic alterations to labour rights in its omnibus budget bill, C-4.  Under this bill, the government can unilaterally expand the use of the essential service designation, limit public sector worker’s right to bargain collectively, and will undoubtedly lead to labour unrest.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, these efforts by Canadian governments are cause for concern.  Nobody likes to see strikes, protests or work action, but these are fundamental rights provided to all Canadians under both the Charter and various labour relations acts.  It has become all too easy to blame unions, but governments are equally to blame for instances of labour unrest.  Unions have a duty to represent their members, and every Canadian has benefitted in some way from the historical role of unions in terms of working conditions and standards, wages and benefits.  It is worth noting that unions are culpable for far too freely using work action to get their way, when such measures were typically seen as last-resort mechanisms in difficult negotiations.

The truth of the matter is that governments are notoriously bad at bargaining.  They have often acquiesced to union pressures because they fear labour action, unions have large numbers and can impact electoral math, governments lack expertise and experience in bargaining compared to unions, and there is often reluctance within government ministries or departments to work jointly.  If bad agreements are signed, it takes two to tango.  Unions are doing their jobs in trying to achieve the best outcome for their members – it is governments who typically cave out of fear for self-preservation.  The problem here is clear – big government means big unions.  As governments have grown and reduced private market competition, they have created monopolies that cannot escape the impact of public sector union tactics.

The public sector in this country requires change, and public sector unions’ power and influence of should be reined in, but imposing legislation without appropriate consultation or burying changes in omnibus budget legislation is cowardly.  Canadians deserve a fair and transparent consultation process on the merits of the case for change before seeing labour rights fundamentally altered.