By Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage
A typical union member in Canada today is likely to be female and work in the public sector, a big change from the primarily male, blue-collar, industrial workforce that dominated the union movement well into the 1980s. The demographic makeup of the Canadian labour movement has undergone a slow but dramatic transformation over the course of the past three decades.
In fact, roughly one out of every five Canadian workers is employed in the broader public sector, working in public administration, health care, education, police and fire protection, public utilities, social services and municipal government. Of those, more than 70 per cent are union members. This compares to just 15.9 per cent of private sector workers in Canada who belong to unions.
Hamilton’s blue-collar identity was forged through a long history of struggles in industrial workplaces, most notably in the 1946 Stelco strike. But in recent years, the ravages of deindustrialization have cut deeply into the number of private sector union members, while both employment and union membership in public sector workplaces has grown.
So, what does it mean to live in a “union town” like Hamilton when the unionized jobs are located primarily in the public sector?
In their defence of good jobs and expanded services, public sector unions are in fact promoting the public good.
While unions members in both the public and private sectors face similar workplace challenges, there are important differences too. Public sector unions tend to face greater “taxpayer” backlash, since the public purse is used to pay for the salaries and benefits of public sector workers. No-one is a disinterested bystander during a public sector strike.
As a result, public sector unions are often cast as acting in their self-interest rather than the public interest and are scolded when they seek to defend their collective agreements, particularly through strikes and other tactics that interrupt services that members of the public depend on. This dynamic was on display through 2012 and 2013, as teachers sought to defend their right to free collective bargaining by engaging in rotating strikes and withdrawing from extracurricular activities.
Public sector strikes are understandably contentious affairs since their implications stretch far beyond the workplace. When public sector union members exercise their right to strike they are not striking a capitalist business, but rather the government, school board, or social service agency and arguably, by extension, the public.
In addition, many public sector employers, such as hospitals, universities and colleges, are not themselves in direct control of their budgets and unions must negotiate with them rather than the governments who really hold the purse strings. But these issues often blind us to the fact that public sector workers have legitimate needs — for fair wages and working conditions. Moreover, in their defence of good jobs and expanded services, public sector unions are in fact promoting the public good.
Everyone is dependent on a well-functioning, well-financed public sector. For public sector workers, this is the source of a decent and secure livelihood. For citizens, the public sector is the mechanism we use to collectively provide services — like health care and education — that are so fundamental to our well-being, regardless of our individual income levels.
For employers, the public sector also provides things such as transportation infrastructure and workforce training that make profit-making possible. As such, the provision — and interruption — of public services matters to various groups, but in different ways and with different political dynamics. Given these distinct and sometimes contradictory interests, public sector unions’ capacity to exert power is complicated.
Given the centrality of public services to our quality of life, connections between the interests of service providers and recipients need to be strengthened.
Right-wing politicians would have us believe that austerity is the direct result of the wage demands of greedy public sector unions. This frame conveniently ignores both the role of the financial industry in precipitating the Great Recession of 2008 and the decades-long reduction in corporate tax rates that has shifted a greater burden onto working families.
Blaming political and economic problems on unionized public sector workers is not only misdirected, but also serves the interests of right-wing politicians and their corporate allies who, in the name of profit, seek to undermine support for public services and the public sector union members who provide them.
To overcome these divide-and-conquer strategies, and defend against further attacks on the rights of public sector workers, unions will require new strategic thinking and modes of action. That means more effectively connecting the interests of public sector workers with those of citizens, by linking contract demands to the enhancement of the quality and availability of public services.
Some are already leading the way: nurses, for example, have a long history of making the level and quality of patient care a central part of their bargaining demands. Similarly, social service workers have used their bargaining power to improve working conditions while simultaneously challenging service cuts to society’s most vulnerable.
Given the centrality of public services to our quality of life, such connections between the interests of service providers and recipients need to be strengthened. In this way, public sector unions can work more effectively in common cause with those who desire a more just and equitable society.
Professor Stephanie Ross teaches in the Work and Labour Studies program at York University and Professor Larry Savage is director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University. They are co-editors of the new book Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity. The book will be launched at a public event in Hamilton on Friday Oct, 4 at 7 p.m. at the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre on Stuart Street.
Photo by Ontario Federation of Labour