Editorial: Hold line on public sector wages


A public sector union conference underway this week in Fredericton is titled “Breaking the Mandate.” But it would be more appropriate to call it “Breaking the Bank.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is calling for drastic action, even mass strikes. The move is to force the province to bump-up pay hikes to two per cent per year – an amount above many private sector raises and well above what taxpayers can afford.

This is an issue that calls for a return to first principles. Working for the government has special privileges: By definition, a public servant's employer has a monopoly, thus insulating workers from competition. Government also has the ability raise revenue on a whim by levying higher taxes. In the world of private business, only greater productivity or investment can produce more revenue. 

This means government can be taken advantage of by its own workers, should they organize labour stoppages. Indeed, that's exactly what CUPE is calling on government workers to do.

Yet it's fair to question whether public sector unions should be allowed to exist at all. This was a point of view shared by no less than Franklin D. Roosevelt, the liberal U.S. president who implemented the New Deal – a series of welfare reforms in the 1930s that greatly expanded government power.

Despite being favourable to unions in general, Mr. Roosevelt wrote, "All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." And: "The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations."

The government just isn't like other employers. If unions in the private sector are unreasonable, their efforts will harm their member's position if labour stoppages hurt the company. Meanwhile, public sector workers can be assured this danger doesn't apply to them.

In principle, the government should be able to protect its own employees and make reasonable judgments about wages, without collective bargaining. This logic applies to any government; but in New Brunswick, the argument is even stronger given the province's financial position. The budget is deep in red ink, debt is mounting, taxes are high and credit-rating agencies are warning of potential downgrades.

Unions need to realize many public sector employees receive higher salaries and greater benefits than their private-sector counterparts. Yet they still turn to those private sector taxpayers and demand more money.