The three-week-old strike by municipal workers in Toronto has spawned mountains of stinking garbage, left public swimming pools empty and wreaked havoc for working parents who rely on city-run daycares. But the strike has also brought with it something else: the sudden realization that not all jobs in Canada are created equal.
In what many would call the real world, an economic earthquake has shattered lives, erased nearly 400,000 jobs, and obliterated a lifetime of retirement savings, hopes and dreams. Yet despite that, public sector workers with iron-clad pensions and rock-solid job security have opted to wage a battle for pay hikes and the type of arcane perks that were almost unheard of in the private sector, even when times were good. “Everyone who works within a large apparatus like the government believes the whole world works that way, when in fact it doesn’t,” says Ted Mallett, chief economist with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). “There’s a distinct lack of appreciation for what’s changed outside in the real world.”
Unions dismiss such comments as the rantings of right-wing lobbyists hell-bent on dismantling organized labour. Despite the public outcry over the strikes and polls which show that many citizens deeply oppose them, union leaders insist the outrage is largely manufactured. “Public jealousy is being whipped up,” says Larry Brown, secretary-treasurer of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). “The idea that there’s a mollycoddled public sector workforce is just not genuine.” Yet any sober analysis of the numbers shows most government workers do enjoy a distinct advantage over their private sector counterparts. Government workers enjoy enviable pay, more luxurious benefits and in almost all cases, astonishingly better pensions.
A string of labour battles in recent months has plastered this growing inequality all over the headlines. The strike by 24,000 city workers in Toronto has brought Hogtown to a standstill. Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) are seeking a wage increase in the range of three per cent a year, in line with what transit employees and police received last year through arbitration. But public fury has centred mostly on the workers’ sick-day bank. As it stands now, many city workers can sock away their unused paid sick days, up to 18 a year, and cash out up to six months’ worth when they retire. The sick bank has left a $250-million unfunded liability on the city’s books, which is why other regions around Toronto have done away with them. But CUPE is adamant the sick-day bank remain untouched. “The city is putting the knife to us,” Ann Dembinski, president of CUPE Local 79, said recently.
Meanwhile in Windsor, a bitter strike by city workers is already into its third month. Workers voted to strike over the city’s attempts to curb post-retirement benefits for future workers, such as medical benefits. Paul Moist, the national president of CUPE, which represents striking workers in both cities, says the disputes happened because employers tried to take away well-established benefits. “I think the recession is being used as ground cover because workers are vulnerable,” he says.
The list goes on. In Ottawa this past winter, bus drivers rejected a seven per cent pay raise over three years and shut down the capital’s transit system for seven weeks after the city tried to curtail their right to set their own schedules. In Calgary and Edmonton, municipal workers landed contracts in May that offered pay raises of between 3.5 to 4.5 per cent this year and next. And in B.C., striking paramedics, who say other emergency workers earn more than they do, are seeking an amazing seven per cent raise each year for the next three years.
To say all this has left regular workers feeling bitter puts it mildly. “The whole public sector is going to get tarnished” by the strike in Toronto, says Maurice Mazerolle, a labour studies professor at Ryerson University. “There are outrageous things in some public sector contracts and people are wondering, ‘What is this about? Why do you get this?’ ”
Much of what’s driving government sector unions is the deeply ingrained belief that everyone else is way better off. It’s not uncommon to hear the claim that government workers lag the private sector by 10 or even 20 per cent. “The private sector has been demonstrably ahead of the public sector,” says Moist. For instance, he says, the government has had a terrible time hiring people in the trades because workers could make so much more elsewhere. Never mind the fact that at the time, Canada was in the middle of a phenomenal commodity and housing boom, which has since been followed by an equally spectacular bust that’s hitting private sector construction workers particularly hard.