Sunday, January 25, 2009

Do Public Sector Unions Know We’re In a Recession?

The economy remains the key issue upon which Canadians are focused. We’re very close to finally finding out exactly what initiatives the Conservatives will propose with tens of billions in deficit financing. Sadly there is no shortage of potential targets. Canada is bleeding jobs in manufacturing, in the forestry and resource sectors. In fact there are few areas not being affected by the downturn in our economy.

With so many people losing their jobs I can’t help but wonder how these displaced workers feel about Canada’s public sector unions and the contract negotiations now taking place in a number of high profile stories. There’s the Ottawa transit strike, York University’s striking teaching assistants and contractual staff, as well as possible strikes looming for Halifax school bus drivers and Ontario elementary school teachers.

In the case of York University, striking staff were offered a 9.25% wage increase over 3 years. Ottawa transit workers were offered a 7.25% increase over the same time period. Ontario’s elementary school teachers rejected a 12% increase over 4 years and Halifax bus drivers said no to an increase from $12.49 per hour to $14.06 at the top end of the pay scale.

I realize that there are other issues being negotiated beyond salaries. For York staff there’s the question of job security and tenure, with elementary school teachers there’s preparation and supervision time. In Ottawa transit workers are concerned about scheduling and the ability of workers to select bus routes. But is this really the time for unions to be digging their heels in and going on strike? Especially in the public sector where services are funded by the taxpayer.

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The NDP has announced that it will stall quick passage of back to work legislation in the case of York University. Obviously as a labour party they have a commitment to Unions and their cause, but I’m going to suggest that now is not the time to be thinking dogmatically. Obviously as collective agreements expire negotiations have to take place, and its unfortunate that some have had the ill luck to be forced to the table at a time when the public purse is bleeding red ink.

But is striking the best strategy at this time? If the terms employees were working under were acceptable for the past two, three or four years (depending on the length of the expiring CBA) then why not continue working under the old terms while we’re in this period of economic decline? Conversely why not consider a shorter term, perhaps a one or two year contract? Then, after we’ve emerged from this period of economic constraint, go back to the table when the public treasury will be better able to absorb increased costs.

Whenever there’s a high profile strike involving a public sector union there’s inevitably a battle for public opinion. Both unions and governments use the media to convince Jane and Joe Citizen that their actions are just. Right now though it seems to me the unions are losing the battle. The right to strike is fundamental to the legitimacy of the union movement, and I would never wish to see it taken away. But I equally wish that those in a position to decide whether or not to use it would exercise more discretion. Now is not the time to be withdrawing needed public services, especially in light of generous wage increases.

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