Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2011 (3769 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is a tough time to be a member of Manitoba's largest public sector unions. The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union (MGEU), the largest bargaining unit in the provincial civil service, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 500, the largest of the unions representing City of Winnipeg workers, are both embroiled in contract talks where they are being asked to accept wage freezes, and being urged by union leaders to strike.
At CUPE 500, which represents half of all city workers, union leadership has already recommended the nearly 5,000 members reject a four-year offer from the city that would freeze wages in the first two years. A strike-mandate vote will take place today. The situation is nearly the same with MGEU, which has rejected a proposal from the province for a two-year wage freeze. MGEU leadership will seek a strike mandate in a vote to be held later this year.
The prospect of 24 months of wage freezes has certainly ratcheted up the hyperbole. Terms like "general strike" are being tossed around like wet snowballs right now, leading many to believe this could be among the toughest years ever in public sector labour relations.
All of this raises a question: Is there ever a good time to freeze wages? The province and city certainly feel they have some pretty solid evidence to back up their argument. Largely as a result of the global recession, the province is hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit and struggling to maintain funding to core services. At the city, a freeze on property taxes that has gone on for more than a decade has put the city into an untenable position where it has to ask its employees, many of whom are homeowners as well, to accept no wage increases for two years.
It probably bears mentioning that the province is dealing with a financial crunch over which it had virtually no control. The city, on the other hand, is reeling from a revenue problem that is mostly of its own making. The property-tax freeze that has gone on for more than a decade has finally caught up with the operating budget. In both disputes, however, union leadership has argued public servants should not have made concessions to absorb the shock of an economic crisis created by greedy capitalists in the financial sector, or foolish city councillors bent on re-election at any cost. If you accept that argument, then you probably believe it is not acceptable to ask for a wage freeze.
The problem for unions is while many Canadians might agree with their analysis, it has not stopped a growing number of them from looking at unions with contempt. Unions, public sector ones in particular, have become vilified institutions. Higher wages and more generous pension plans have put unionized public servants on the same dartboard as greedy bank executives who get paid ever-larger bonuses for running their companies into the ground.
It's hardly a fair comparison. Private sector workers would rather forget labour was either directly or indirectly responsible for many of the rights and protections all wage earners enjoy now. It's possible the eight-hour workday, 40-hour work week, premium pay, paid holidays, maternity leave and vacation pay would have become staples in the life of the western worker without the dogged lobbying of labour unions. But there is no doubt labour was at the forefront of the introduction of all these basic rights. Unfortunately, economic downturns have a habit of wiping clean the institutional memory of entire societies.
Now, fewer and fewer people support the idea of unions, especially public sector unions. It was the case for much of the last century that Americans and Canadians, even if they did not belong to an union, recognized the good they did for working people. Now, opinion polls consistently show declining numbers of people willing to support the idea of a union, and growing numbers who are outraged that unions continue to demand wage and benefit increases in defiance to the economic downturn that surrounds them.
The provincial NDP is a good example of declining union support. The ruling NDP, at its highest echelons, sees some virtue in public sector wage restraint, especially if it means a shot at another majority government. The union wing of the party does not, but its influence in the NDP is on the wane. How else to explain the fact that it was an NDP government that came up with the proposal for a wage freeze?
All of this means that a general strike is, at this time and in this city, a very risky proposition. As unions become less and less popular, politicians become more and more emboldened to take away those wages and benefits that have defined the public sector in Canada. In other words, we may be approaching a time when it's politically fashionable, even profitable, to tangle with public sector unions, and that can't be good for public sector workers.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.