walkom: city workers a convenient target

Many cheers for Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star. His rational, pro-worker column is a welcome bright spot amid the mainstream media's anti-strike hysteria. Too bad we'd need about 500 stories like this to get anything approaching balance.
Striking city workers a convenient target

Former Conservative Ontario premier Mike Harris used the recession of the early 1990s masterfully to stoke class resentment against welfare recipients.

by Thomas Walkom

Hard times breed class resentment. Unfortunately, the wrong class usually gets targeted.

During the slump of the '90s, then Ontario Conservative leader Mike Harris persuaded Ontarians that welfare recipients were responsible for the province's economic difficulties.

Harris got the premiership and the poor got whacked, ultimately creating a set of poverty problems that, 14 years later, continue to fester.

The current recession however, appears to have created a new scapegoat – unionized workers.

Evidence of this first surfaced during the auto bailout. In both Canada and the U.S., polls showed that the public at large viewed unionized autoworkers as overpaid and underskilled.

There was little sympathy for those in danger of losing their auto plant jobs and even less for the idea of governments helping them out.

In the context of recession, the benefits that autoworkers had won – the pensions, the days off, the extra pay – became objects of resentment rather than emulation.

Those without such perks didn't say to themselves: Maybe if we unionize, we'll be able to get the same deal.

Instead, the reaction was: Who do these guys think they are?

The very fact that autoworkers were so normal seemed to make it easier to treat them as objects of scorn.

They weren't professionals with multiple degrees. They weren't financiers who dabbled in arcane but lucrative areas of investment.

They were just ordinary people who had managed to land unusually well-paying jobs.

So too the Toronto civic workers' strike.

At the best of times, the public has little sympathy for municipal strikes. They are, by definition, nightmares.

That's why the findings of a Toronto Star poll this week – that 53 per cent of Torontonians blame the Canadian Union of Public Employees for the strike – should come as no surprise. Indeed, the only surprise is that this figure isn't higher

What is unusual, however, is the visceral level of hostility against the strikers that emerges in casual conversation: The workers are uppity; they are already paid too much; they should all be fired.

"I find it sickening to listen to these people hold a city hostage in order to maintain an unsustainable contract. It reminds me of the autoworkers," one reader wrote to the Star website. "Get back to work and do your job," wrote another. "Fire all the union workers and hire private (garbage) collectors," added a third.

These comments were in response to a report of a striker who had been hit by a car attempting to drive through his picket line.

Yet are Toronto city workers overpaid? Wage comparisons are notoriously difficult. But a unionized city receptionist, for example, starts at $20.50 an hour; a truck driver makes $24.14; a landscape architect earns $36.95.

By comparison, the average full-time hourly wage in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada, is $24.35, while the average union wage is $26.40.

As for the charge that public-sector workers are pampered, think back.

In the recession of the '80s, they had their wages trimmed or frozen as governments at all levels attempted to deal with massive deficits.

In the '90s, the same thing happened.

After that recession, wages for all workers (except corporate executives) were slow to rebound. But for public-sector employees, the pace was even slower. According to CUPE, Toronto civic workers went eight years without any wage increase.

It's their bad luck to be trying for catch-up just as the country has entered another slump.

Finally, there is the issue of sick pay. Nothing, it seems, rankles Torontonians more than the idea of civic workers being able to bank up to 18 unused sick days a year and then cash them out upon retirement, a perk that one critic calls "a bonus for coming to work."

Yet in the strange world of collective bargaining, non-wage arrangements such as this are exactly the kinds of deals routinely struck – often at the behest of employers anxious to avoid paying their workers up-front cash.

Toronto's sick-pay deal, for instance, benefited the city and its taxpayers for years. Instead of paying higher wages over that period, the city was able to defer this particular portion of its labour costs until employees retired.

Now, with the city's largely middle-aged workforce close to retirement, the bills are coming due. But instead of paying what it owes, the city wants to scrap the arrangement. No wonder the workers are miffed.

Not that any of this will stop the public from fuming and the media from fulminating.

This recession was triggered by a runaway financial system. For a while, those who ran the system were in the doghouse. Now, thanks in large part to the remarkable tolerance shown by governments and their regulators, they're back on top.

In the U.S., banks that had to be rescued by Washington because their highly paid help took undue risks are once again back in the business of paying princely salaries. Yet such matters are no longer front-page news. They are too complicated.

Instead, we have found a more convenient group of people upon whom we can vent our fear and frustration. They're closer. They're easier to beat up.

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