These are dangerous times for public-sector unions.
The unions that represent government workers are currently faced with the prospect of years of frozen or severely curtailed wages, significant layoffs and increasing workloads for civil servants left behind. Of greater concern, it appears in his bid to balance the provincial budget, Premier Brian Pallister is attempting to build a wall between taxpayers and unionized workers, alleging nearly two decades of NDP government has left the province bloated, overstaffed and overpaid.
Classic fiscal conservatives believe government is almost always too big. Like a green garbage bag pumped full of air, they believe if you squeeze it hard and long enough, you will remove all the waste and be left with the essence of government services. True to that model, Pallister has ordered a 15 per cent cut in management ranks across government, a number of government sources confirm was more or less pulled out of thin air. Education and health funding has been cut to the bone, infrastructure investments have been curtailed and grants to municipalities have been frozen or cut.
Pallister is not completely absent of justification for his policies. After seven straight deficit budgets — two delivered by the Tories — it’s clearly time to get on with balancing the budget. Manitoba is not in the throes of a fiscal crisis, but if the government waits until a crisis arrives, it will probably be too late to turn things around.
Still, Pallister’s current tack is a significant departure from his core election promise which, after all, was to slow but not freeze or cut spending and reduce the deficit with normal economic growth. That pledge is a distant memory now, and has been replaced by an aggressive cut-and-freeze strategy that is putting tremendous pressure on public-sector unions.
How have the labour organizations fared in the age of Pallister austerity? It’s been a bit of a mixed bag.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), which will run into the legislated wage freeze next year when most teacher contracts are up for renegotiation, has been vocal about Pallister’s labour strategy. MTS president Norm Gould has argued it is unfair to ask public servants to bear the brunt of the suffering to slay the provincial deficit.
"It is a provincial deficit, it is not a public-sector deficit," Gould has repeatedly said. "When you say all hands on deck, it’s all hands on deck and not just one sector."
Gould’s assertion, one shared by many labour organizations, is not untrue, but it may be profoundly unwise.
The province’s budget strategy has delivered pain across all sectors and constituencies. A virtual freeze in education funding and cuts in grants to municipalities will inevitably result in higher property taxes in many school divisions. The elimination or curtailing of funding for other government services most definitely means, for the time being, taxpayers will be paying the same or even more but getting less in government services.
In that context, it is ineffective to complain public servants in general, and teachers in particular, bear an unfair portion of the fiscal pain the Pallister government has unleashed.
MTS is not the only union to struggle with messaging.
CUPE 500, which represents 4,600 city workers, recently asked its members to reject the city’s latest four-year contract offer that included a one-year wage freeze, followed by two years at one per cent and a fourth at 1.25 per cent. About two-thirds of CUPE members endorsed a strike mandate.
CUPE 500 is not directly affected by Bill 28, but as a public-sector union, it is caught in its wake. That means pressing its case for more in an environment where the largest public sector unions are caught in Pallister’s wage pinch.
Undeterred by all that context, CUPE 500 President Gord Delbridge believes his members should be afforded the same general terms as firefighters and police, both of which settled for deals that contained much more generous wage increases. Unfortunately for Delbridge, those contracts were finalized before the full extent of provincial funding cuts were known.
Municipalities were told in the April budget their funding would be frozen at 2016 levels; the reality is funding has been cut. According to statements by Pallister late last week, funding could be frozen or cut further for years to come. One has to assume if Mayor Brian Bowman and council knew that then, they might have driven a harder bargain with firefighters and police.
CUPE should be cautious about how it proceeds, largely because Bowman and council look like they are prepared to call any strike bluff. With other public sector unions fighting their own fights on wage freezes and layoffs, and citizens bracing for property tax increases and service cuts, there would be little public support for a strike that cripples civic services. Without that support, government will be emboldened to wait out a strike, and possibly seek greater concessions down the road.
Pallister has cut deeper and broader than he originally promised. The reality of the premier’s actions is just about every Manitoban is facing some sort of pain or uncertainty. That is not fertile ground on which to build public support for a civic strike. There is simply no way for a public sector union to survive a work stoppage without some public support.
For labour, the hill to die on is Bill 28. Pallister’s wage freeze bill is legally tenuous and morally questionable. It deserves to be said the former pro-labour NDP government managed to negotiate deals with public sector unions that are equal to or perhaps even a bit better than what Pallister is seeking through his bill. That fact alone exposes Pallister’s unprovoked hostility towards labour, a posture that could ultimately erode public confidence in the Tory government.
Dangerous times to be sure. However, public sector unions need to realize the greatest threat they face now is not frozen wages, but the prospect of a complete erosion of support for their cause among the public.