Wrong-headed labour reform a sign of tone-deaf government

Today public sector unions are best understood as interest groups

CALGARY, Alta. Oct. 14, 2016/ Troy Media/ – In recent weeks, the faculty association at the University of Calgary has expressed concern about changes the Alberta government wants to make in the way bargaining units are governed.

The change is required, the government said, in response to a 2105 Supreme Court decision that all bargaining groups, whether in the private or public sector, be given the right to strike. The government proposes to transfer the faculty bargaining unit from governance under the Post-Secondary Learning Act to the Labour Act.

The University of Calgary Faculty Association (TUCFA) pointed out that a minor amendment to the Post-Secondary Learning Act, not a wholesale transfer to the jurisdiction of the Labour Act, would do the trick.

They also argued that the potential for harm to TUCFA members is high. After 35 years of more or less harmonious relations between TUCFA and the university administration, a complex web of protocols, traditions and agreements has developed that would be unnecessarily disturbed. Given that the NDP is advised by persons for whom the veil of ignorance regarding local practices is very thick, it is not surprising that they rely on experiences familiar from elsewhere that were deliberately rejected here a generation ago.

And when the government did listen to the locals, TUCFA pointed out, they relied on their friends at the University of Alberta, which has developed a dysfunctional system that they seem incapable of fixing. They think the government should fix it for them and use the Labour Act to do so.

To get the ear of sympathetic bureaucrats and politicians, the U of A people have only to cycle across the High Level Bridge. Proximity counts, of course, but this new initiative raises more fundamental questions. Some of them were raised in the original court decision and are worth revisiting.

The majority opinion, written by Rosie Abella, formerly of the Ontario Labour Relations Board and married to a labour historian, overturned three precedents, the “Labour Trilogy” of cases decided in 1987. This was more than an egregious example of judicial activism by the Supremes; it also prompted a rhetorically powerful dissent.

Under the rubric of “workplace justice,” wrote Justices Rothstein and Wagner, the majority relied “on a nineteenth-century conception of the relationship between employers and workers” that was blind to the reality of labour negotiations between governments and public-sector unions.

Neither the court nor the Alberta government acknowledges the fundamental difference between private- and public-sector unions: The former depend on a growing economy, the latter on a growing government. Public sector unions do not represent organized labour in the old sense of miners’ unions, pipefitters’ or – my old union – fishermen.

The David and Goliath world of workers battling capitalists is long gone. Today public sector unions are best understood as interest groups.

Unlike private-sector bargaining, the adversarial relationship is almost non-existent. Union-busting is unheard of. No one thinks of hiring replacement bureaucrats. Indeed, since government managers don’t retain profits, they have no incentive to reduce labour costs and every incentive (including bonuses) to ensure “labour peace.” The easiest way of doing so is to spend taxpayers’ money.

When government managers are agents of a government elected with public-sector union support – hello, Premier Notley – the conflict of interest is obvious to the dimmest among us. Gratitude for generous contracts is expressed by expending union dues directly or indirectly in support of a beneficent government.

The questions seldom asked of public-sector unions is: What is the public benefit of such organizations? Leaders of such unions, my brief research indicates, answer by saying the benefits are self-evident and the question is absurd.

That is no answer at all, but it does indicate that TUCFA’s resistance to the government is a public service.

Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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