The teachers’ dispute and the war on wages

Posted on December 20, 2012 in Debates – news/canada/politics
December 19, 2012.  By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist

The one-day teachers’ strikes are coming to an end. What’s next?

For teachers, the new year will almost certainly include government-imposed contracts and the suspension of their right to strike for 24 months.

For other public sector workers, this is their likely future as well. The Liberal government didn’t have time to eliminate their bargaining rights before Premier Dalton McGuinty abruptly prorogued the Legislature this fall.

But barring an ideological conversion of Biblical proportions, whoever replaces McGuinty is likely to follow his lead.

For unionized workers who are not employed by government, the attack on public sector unions is a moment of truth.

When Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party government overrode collective agreements in 1993, many private sector unions — including the Steelworkers and my union, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers — broke with their public sector counterparts to support the NDP regime.

The essence of their argument would be familiar today: private sector workers had already suffered from what was, at the time, the biggest recession since the 1930s; therefore, public sector workers had to sacrifice as well.

It was an argument that resonated with their rank and file. But it ignored the real story, which was that government was changing the rules of the entire collective bargaining game

It will be interesting to see how the private sector unions respond this time.

For those who are not unionized (a majority of workers in Ontario) the dispute with teachers may seem remote. It is not. The union movement is one of the last remnants of the great postwar pact between labour, capital and government.

That pact provided Canadians with things they still value, from medicare to public pension plans. Good wages in union shops kept pay high, even in workplaces that weren’t organized. Unions agitated for and won better health and safety laws that covered all.

True, union rules made it more difficult for employers to axe slackers. But they also ensured that when someone lost his job, it was for real cause — not because he or she had refused to sleep with the boss.

Some employers were content with all of this. Many were not and, as their profits came under pressure, demanded what they called greater flexibility — in wages, work practices and hiring.

Over the past 30 years, most Canadian governments have devoted themselves to eliminating anything that interferes with this flexibility.

So think of this latest foray against teachers as part of a package. In Ottawa, the federal government brings temporary workers into Canada to staff doughnut shops. They do so not because the ability to pour coffee is an unusual skill, but because doughnut-shop owners don’t want to pay the wages expected by Canadian workers.

In Ottawa and at Queen’s Park, governments respond to deficits by cutting away at social spending. The reason here is that programs like employment insurance keep workers from becoming so desperate that they will take any job at any wage.

But there is a further problem. How can employees be encouraged to accept the discipline of this new world when they see some, such as teachers and other public sector workers, still making good wages?

The former Tory government of Mike Harris certainly tried to solve this problem and bring the teachers’ unions to heel. At one point it outlawed work-to-rule tactics and made it mandatory for teachers to coach sports after school. But in the end the Tories backed down.

Now it’s the Liberals’ turn. This government has given itself the power to set teachers’ wages and working conditions arbitrarily. It calculates that most voters will be envious enough of teachers that they will support its plans. It may be right.

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