Public Values

Toronto strike: no contract, no service is basic business sense, not "public sector monopoly"

Why demand concessions from workers while those who caused crisis get billions in bailouts?

Sid Ryan is president of CUPE Ontarioby Sid Ryan

July 28, 2009 — In the world of the magician, one of the most critical skills is "misdirection", wherein the illusionist employs sleight of hand to fool the audience into looking away from where the nitty-gritty of the trick is actually taking place.

Canada appears to be the target of just such a trick, in the form of a newly fashionable term that's come into vogue amid the recent spate of labour disputes. The term is "public-sector monopoly", and between conservative bloggers, right-of-centre newspaper columnists and television coverage, a sizable part of the commentariat has suddenly been transformed into rabid trust-busters.

Sadly, it isn't the likes of a Standard Oil or Microsoft being targeted. Rather, this zeal has been directed at the thousands of ordinary men and women, many of them new Canadians, part-time workers and students, who have found themselves on strike after their employers chose to use this year's economic problems to extract concessions.

That they have elected to withdraw their labour in the absence of a contract – something any business person should understand – suddenly becomes an issue when the garbage starts to pile up and the summer camps aren't available. So much of an issue that these workers somehow constitute a "public-sector monopoly" that merits the sternest possible response: breaking up the so-called monopoly by contracting out public services such as waste management, daycares and public transit to private, for-profit entities.

This misdirection needs to be called out.

True, Canada and the rest of the world have been in the grip of a difficult recession (although recent data appears to show that grip is loosening). True, this summer has seen a number of high-profile labour disruptions, most notably in Toronto and Windsor, Ont. But does a summer of labour disruption truly warrant such a heavy-handed response, or is that response simply an effort to shift attention away from those who put us in this economic crisis in the first place? Did the men and women walking the picket lines spend decades agitating for less and less regulation of global financial markets? Did they devise ever-more-complex financial instruments to provide cover for the unscrupulous lenders who approved mortgages to people they knew didn't have the means to pay?

If they had, perhaps they might have been on the receiving end of tens of billions of dollars in bailout money. But they didn't, and they weren't. Instead, these men and women are meant to pay to bail out the people and corporations who engineered the crisis.

A misdirection this extreme is enough to cause whiplash. It shouldn't have to be dignified with a response, but for these workers, the stakes are too high.

Besides, the research on the topic is clear that publicly delivered services, such as waste management, are more efficient and less expensive than privately delivered equivalents. It's the case in Britain, where officials in Scotland and Wales have been forced to step back from contracting out hospital cleaning services after a spike in infections.

It's also the case here in Canada, where many jurisdictions have struggled to deal with the aftermath of ill-considered experiments in contracting out that never delivered the promised cost savings and efficiencies. Even Toronto understood this in 2007, when the mayor and councilors voted to take in contracted-out curbside waste removal from the pre-amalgamation municipality of York, realizing $4-million in cost savings annually in the process.

Public service delivery ensures crucial accountability mechanisms that are not available in the private sector. When problems occur, there is a clear line of accountability - the buck stops, as it were, with the elected officials. And while the private sector's prime motivation is the bottom line, the public interest dictates that other factors, such as public health, civic beautification and public safety, be taken into account.

The magicians who managed to make billions of dollars vanish during the current economic crisis would prefer that people focus on the "public-sector monopoly" straw man they've constructed, rather than taking a hard look at their own complicity in our hard times. It's dishonest, but misdirection almost always is.

Sid Ryan is president of CUPE Ontario.

Posted: July 30, 2009

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