What wealth can be found in the public sector?

Posted on August 17, 2011 in Policy Context

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TheStar.com – business
Published On Tue Aug 16 2011.    Nicki Thomas, Staff Reporter

Outspoken union advocate Dr. Elaine Bernard was in Toronto Tuesday, speaking to delegates at the annual meeting of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. The Star spoke with Bernard, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labour and Worklife Program, about unions, city workers and why the private sector “doesn’t have a lock on wealth creation.”

Toronto is grappling with how to deal with a deficit problem. What do you make of buyouts and layoffs of city workers as a strategy for saving money?

It’s shortsighted and ill-planned, Bernard said. “First, it often doesn’t save money, if you look at buyouts… And secondly, why would you undermine the infrastructure, the quality of life and the type of services that make Toronto or Ontario successful and a wonderful place to live?”

Bernard said the approach stems from a misconception that the public sector is an expense and only the private sector can create wealth.

How does the public sector create wealth?

“Clean, potable water is a form of wealth… Quality public schools are a form of wealth. It doesn’t become wealth creating only when you privatize it,” she said. Moving services from the public to the private “isn’t wealth creating, it’s wealth shifting,” she said.

“The public sector is creating public value and I think we’ve got to get back to that sort of language, not just that it’s an expense. They’re not looking at the other side of the ledger.”

Some might say that the things you’re talking about are intangible. You can’t balance the books with value or quality of life. How do you respond to that argument?

When it comes to balancing the books, you’ve go to look at revenues as well as expenditures, Bernard said. Right now, governments are focusing on cuts instead of how to increase revenue through bringing “fairness into the tax code,” for instance. Plus, public employees help anchor a middle class lifestyle simply by having jobs, she said.

What roles do unions have in this climate of belt-tightening by any means necessary?

Think of unions beyond wages and benefits. Bernard said, Labour rights are human rights, she said, and have been upheld as such by the Supreme Court of Canada. “Collective bargaining is not a luxury, it’s a very important foundation of a democratic society,” she said. “You can’t say, well, we’re facing a tough budget so in the interim let’s abolish democracy for a while.”

< http://www.thestar.com/business/article/1040437–what-wealth-can-be-found-in-the-public-sector >

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