Opinion Editorial

Facing unions a hard fact in tackling debt

JIM MERRIAM

No matter what labour activists might tell you, the so-called assault on public-sector unions in the United States, particularly the State of Wisconsin, is about more than workers' right to bargain collectively.

You've no doubt heard of the battle. It has been marked by union activists occupying government buildings and members of the opposition Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate hiding outside the state to avoid facing a vote on the matter. (Great leadership on display there.)

In part, the fight is about enormous deficits, which have been rung up by governments with a tendency to buckle to the demands, monetary or otherwise, of any special-interest group big enough to hold a one-band parade. It's also about freedom for workers, but not in the way being spouted by the unionistas.

Before getting into that we should note that the Dalton Gang won't be bringing an antiunion movement to Ontario anytime soon.

The province's actions make its support of unions abundantly clear. A public-sector wage freeze announced last year applied to everyone except unionized employees. Plus the "Education Premier" has been in bed with the teachers' unions since taking office. Hence the pansion of all-day kindergarten (cost $1.5-billion a year) to serve a population with the attention span of, well of a kindergarten student, in a province that is broke.

Back to the subject of unions and workers' rights in Yankeeland, let's consider union membership as one of those rights. In a free society you'd think workers would be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union. However, that freedom only exists as long as a union is outside looking in. Once a union is certified to represent workers, employees are forced to join if they want a job.

But that's not the biggest problem with unions today. In any company-union bargaining situation, the company must act responsibly with the union able to say or do almost anything to keep their members in line behind the organizers and/or the bargaining committee. Hence union leaders have been known to promise a mountain to their members, knowing a molehill might not even be within their grasp.

Outside the public sector, unions often don't achieve much for their workers, particularly in the area of wage increases. (Notable exceptions include auto workers and some others.)

In many instances, when companies face a newly certified bargaining committee the strategy is simple: The cost of the certification to the company is to net out at zero. So all the costs resulting from certification must come from the pre-union pay increase workers would have received.

So a planned 3.5% increase might be reduced to 1.5% with the other 2% going to cover these new costs.

Putting those issues aside for the moment, the aforementioned deficits eventually will force government versus union disputes to the surface everywhere.

Although the U.S. leads the world in deficit accumulation, Canada is working hard to catch up. In fact, this country's debt is north of $560 billion and rising by the second. (Check it out at www.debtclock.ca).Ontario's debt stands at a staggering $219-billion.

Something must be done about this and that something will include painful cuts involving workers in the public sector, whether Dalton McGuinty likes it or not.

When governments in this country develop the stones to join the battle against deficits, the union issue automatically will be attached as an interesting sideshow.

jmerriam@bmts.com



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