Robyn Benson, PSAC

This just in: cats not so fat

Public employees.jpg

“Those pampered public employees.” Heard that before? Of course you have: we’ve been listening to that guff so long that it’s almost background noise at this point. And ideology-based organizations like the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, not to mention the current President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, have been doing their best to keep that notion alive.

Compared to the private sector, we have been told, public workers abuse sick leave, they get superior wages and benefits, and don’t forget those “gold-plated” pensions. And then there are all these big wage increases that federal public workers keep getting. Unfair!

But one by one, the myths crumble under the weight of facts—for a while, at least, although they keep springing up like stubborn weeds. As it turns out, federal public workers are taking about the same amount of sick leave as their private sector counterparts. Nor has it been proven that public sector workers are more highly compensated than their unionized counterparts in the private sector, as the Fraser Institute claims: as I’ve pointed out before, the detailed job-to-job data required to make its case is generally lacking. But this data is collected in Quebec, and compensation differences there, somewhat surprisingly, run the other way—when public-sector unionized workplaces are compared to private-sector unionized workplaces.

Then there’s the pension issue, which I’ve also written about. Another day, another flawed report from the usual suspects. Yes, public sector pensions are decent and reasonable, especially compared to private-sector workplaces without pension plans, but they’re hardly gold-plated: the average federal public service pension, after a higher-than-average contribution rate, is about $25,000 per year.

And now, thanks to Jean-Denis Frechette, the new Parliamentary Budget Officer whom many expected would be a bit of a disappointment, the myth of those handsome public-sector wage increases is also put to rest. Responding to a request by Paul Dewar, MP for Ottawa-Centre, Frechette looked into labour costs in the federal Public Service for the past decade. And the numbers indicate that real wages have remained at about the same level for the entire time.

What’s interesting—and rather depressing—about the “they’ve got it better than us” line of argument is not only the consistently flawed comparisons that exaggerate differences by comparing apples to oranges one moment and bananas the next, but the underlying politics of division.

Decent wages and benefits usually have to be negotiated, and where there are unions, they will be, despite all the obstacles in the way. The labour movement is also in the forefront of the fight to improve pensions for everyone by expanding the CPP/QPP. Three guesses who opposes it?

Unionized workers do better than non-unionized ones as a rule—of course they do. Otherwise, why do they organize themselves into unions in the first place, and why is the Canadian labour movement growing? We also know that the public sector is considerably more unionized than the private sector at present. Hence we shouldn’t be surprised, or shocked, that many public workers are better compensated than many private-sector workers. But what conclusions should we draw from that?

Supposedly the various levels of government should be cutting down all those tall poppies. But why is that a given? Time to look at things a little differently, I think. Public sector or private sector, I can’t really improve on this comment I saw on a T-shirt once:


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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on October 11, 2013 8:26 AM.

"Reprehensible?" We'll second that was the previous entry in this blog.

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