For a guy who has spent most of his career working in the public sector, Conservative MPP Toby Barrett certainly has it in for public sector workers.
Barrett introduced Bill 113 in the legislature to carve out a new bureaucracy within the Ministry of Finance. Its job would be to compare public and private sector wages. This Orwellian “comprehensive pay fairness division” is supposed to provide guidance to arbitrators in settling contracts with public sector workers.
Never mind that arbitration decisions already factor in wage comparators and that such a division may be both very expensive and totally redundant.
This is just the latest attack on workers by the Ontario Conservatives who appear eager to reduce the wages of everyone who relies on a paycheque in this province. The end game is not to pass this piece of legislation, but to drum up public antipathy to the public sector. In fact, the proposed legislation didn’t even survive the day before being voted down.
The Tories insist that this new division in the Ministry of Finance could have simply been constituted from existing Ministry of Labour staff, leaving at least one MPP to ask just what the heck do the Tories think these workers are doing now?
“Does he think they’re just a bunch of people who sit around and talk at the water cooler and don’t have a lot of things to do?” asked NDP MPP Sarah Campbell during debate yesterday in the legislature.
What is truly offensive is the suggestion by Barrett that it is only the private sector that pays the wages of the public sector, as if the rest of us were excused from paying provincial taxes or making public contributions.
Barrett insists that public sector workers are overpaid by 30 per cent, pointing to widely discredited data from some of the Canada’s most blatant right-wing press release mills.
“There’s a real element of absurdity here,” said Campbell, “I mean, we have no way to compare the wages of some public sector workers with private sector workers… we were wondering how exactly you would compare the wage a police officer gets – who would you compare that person to?” Others raised the example of firefighters and EMS paramedics.
When CUPE’s senior economist looked at this in 2011, he noted public and private sector salaries were overall comparable where similar occupations could be found. The big difference was in pay equity.
CUPE’s Toby Sanger noted that men in the public sector are actually paid less (5.3 per cent) on average than men in similar occupations in the private sector. On average women in comparable occupations are paid 4.5 per cent more in the public sector.
Sanger notes that women still face a significant pay gap in relation to men, but it’s smaller in the public sector due to pay equity.
He also notes that pay tends to be better in the public sector for traditionally lower paid occupations, suggesting the public sector is playing a role in reducing income inequality.
During the legislature debate, the PC’s Barrett relied heavily on a “study” by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business that claims public sector workers are paid between 8 and 17 per cent more. That same “study” also suggests “what would be ideal is getting rid of public sector unions entirely.”
That’s the kind of extreme document that the Tories are relying upon for evidence in this debate.
Sanger notes that average pay between public and private sectors is remarkably similar — $49,655 in the public sector, $49,407 in the private sector – or a 0.5 per cent difference (2011).
For this small difference the Tories are full of wrath for the men and women who keep our communities safe, teach our children, care for the elderly and otherwise keep Ontario the kind of place we’d all like to live.
Check out this flourish of mean-spirited rhetoric yesterday by Tory MPP John O’Toole: “In the past, the tradition was this: People in the public sector worked harder and it was an honour to work there. They were committed, they were devoted and they took it as their duty. I think of professions like the OPP, professors, doctors, nurses, researchers – the tradition was they there were generally paid less, and generally they were employed for a lifetime. It was expected that there would be loyalty with the employer, and they had a very respectable pension and benefits upon retirement. I would say that tradition has been lost” (emphasis added).
Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca accused the Tories of playing wedge politics by pitting workers against each other.
“Hey, someone down the street has something – allegedly – that you might now have, that you may not have access to, and the best way for you to move forward is for us to take something away from someone – your neighbour or someone living in a different part of the province. That seems to be at the very heart of the philosophical DNA that is exhibited in this particular legislation and also in so much else of what we’ve heard from the Ontario PC Party.”
Whereas the Tories claim that the public sector is overpaid by $19 billion per year, Del Duca notes that existing wage restraint is saving $129 million over two years. That’s at current public sector compensation increases that are averaging just 0.2 per cent – or what Liberal MPP Bob Delaney says is one-fifteenth of the private sector wage settlements. Compare those modest savings to the $1 billion cost of cancelling the gas plants. As the NDP has pointed out, there are other places to look to save money.
So what are the benefits that the Tories are trying to build up public resentment over?
The Tories point to the fact that 76.5 per cent of public sector workers are covered by a pension compared to 26 per cent of private sector workers, as if we should reduce pensions for the public sector rather than form a plan to address an impending crisis for aging private sector workers.
While the Tories like to talk about job creation, they complain that in 2011 there were more private sector job losses than the public sector – the implication being we should gut jobs just to be equitable without looking at the role these workers are playing.
It is no surprise then that both the government and the NDP see the Tories agenda as one of appealing to the lowest common denominator.
“We shouldn’t make poverty a public right,” says Campbell.
With the NDP and Liberals opposing the Tory bill the legislation failed to go anywhere. However, the Tories have made it clear that this is just but one more salvo on their ongoing war against the public sector.