Class war not welcome

If Marcel Latouche had his way, politicians in Canada would follow the lead of their American counterparts and declare war on public service employees ("Rethinking unions", March 19).

Latouche suggests fat-cat trash collectors, hospital cleaning staff and school maintenance workers are bankrupting government, that their salaries and benefits are to blame for record-breaking budget deficits.

His logic would be laughable were it not so misleading.

First off, governments are in trouble because unbridled corporate greed caused a global recession.

Then they tried to kick-start the economy by rewarding some of the same corporations with massive bailouts and tax breaks.

Over the past decade, the Alberta government has given away billions to the energy industry in incentives and royalty breaks, more than enough to eliminate the deficit.

As for the notion the public sector has enjoyed large pay increases while the private sector has suffered, the Alberta government's own data shows that in the past few years, raises for employees in the health, education and public administration sectors have been on par - or behind - those in the mining and oil, construction and utilities sectors.

Blaming public sector unions for provincial deficits makes about as much sense as blaming oilfield workers for rising gas prices.

Latouche says the answer to the "problem" of public sector unions is "managed competition" - which is just code for privatization and contracting out government services.

Whenever advocates try to make the case for hiring private companies to deliver public services, they conveniently ignore the hidden costs to taxpayers.

These include time and money spent monitoring the contractor, administrative fees and additional charges for "extra" work.

In the U.S., the Government Finance Officers Association estimates that this can increase the real cost of a public service by up to 25%.

Latouche argues that by having private businesses bidding against each other, it will drive down the price because the "lowest or best price will get the contract."

The problem with this argument is that private companies are in business to make a profit - they will do everything they can to keep costs down, perhaps even cutting corners or taking advantage of poorly worded provisions in a contract.

The truth is, the only real way that private contractors can deliver a public service more cheaply is by paying lower wages.

Racing to the bottom that way will only hurt entire communities, especially smaller towns where public sector employees support local businesses.

Bashing public employees has become a popular tactic by people who want governments to cut taxes for the rich and slash services to the rest of us.

Contrary to what Latouche and his ilk would have you believe, public service workers are hard-working, contributing members of the middle class. They coach their kids' teams, mow their lawns and pay their taxes, just like everyone else.

Smear campaigns and attacks on their dignity and their contributions to society are not the answer to government's financial woes.

Albertans should let their politicians know, in no uncertain terms, that a U.S.-style class war is not welcome here.

Calgary Sun, Thurs Mar 24 2011
Byline: Guy Smith, President

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