Archive for February, 2011

Irresistible force versus immovable object

Once thought to be untouchable, governments are now eying public sector unions as they move to control deficits

By Todd Humber (

An irresistible force is about to slam into an immovable object.

Playing the role of the force is right-wing governments across North America, and that immovable object is public-sector unions.

Protestors scream outside of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's office while he holds a fireside chat at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisc., on Feb. 22. Walker, whose bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power has triggered public protests, said on Sunday he expected Democrats who oppose his plan to return to the state and debate the issue this week. (Photo: Darren Hauck/Reuters)

In the United States, this battle is playing out dramatically in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican governors are seeking to balance budgets, in part, by targeting unions and even curtailing collective bargaining rights.  

State government books across the U.S. are bleeding red ink, with a total budget shortfall estimated to be US$125 billion in the next fiscal year. Governments elected on pledges to curtail spending smell blood in the water — the public appetite for perceived union largesse is non-existent.

Unionization rates south of the border have been dropping for years. In 2010, 11.9 per cent of the U.S. workforce was unionized, down from 12.3 per cent in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year comparable data was available, that figure stood at 20.1 per cent. (Unions are considerably stronger in Canada. While the rate is declining, 31.4 per cent of workers belonged to a union in 2009, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.)

Unionization among private-sector American workers, in particular, is on life support — just 6.9 per cent belong to unions.

That means the public sector is the last stronghold for American unions, with more than one-third of workers (36.2 per cent) unionized in 2010.

Unions know this, and are taking a vocal stand as governments attempt to balance books. Rallies, vigils and press conferences are planned in “at least” 27 states, according to published reports.

Governments and public-sector unions on this side of the border have their popcorn ready — this is going to be must-see TV, because it’s a glimpse of the near future in Canada.

Right-wing governments north of the border, and even those leaning towards the middle, are eyeing the once untouchable public-sector unions. And it’s happening at all levels.

Newly crowned Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has set the stage for a battle with the city’s unions in 2012. Eddie Francis, the mayor of Windsor, Ont. — a union-friendly city if there ever was one — has already taken on public-sector unions in his city and won, outsourcing services such as garbage collection and parking enforcement.

Ontario’s Liberal government has floated a few trial balloons to test the mettle of unions, including declaring the need for zero per cent wage increases (though it hasn’t been able to achieve that). Earlier this week, it introduced legislation to declare Toronto’s transit system an essential service, removing the right to strike, after Mayor Ford requested them to do so.

All this is, no doubt, being watched carefully in Ottawa. With a deficit in the tens of billions of dollars, the federal government will undoubtedly make a move to trim costs, and public-sector unions will be in the crosshairs. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Only one thing is certain: The battle will be ugly. Powerful public-sector unions, on both sides of the border, will dig their heels deep in the soil. They’re not keen to see clawbacks, and are furious at attempts to limit their collective bargaining rights. Governments, seeking to gain political capital by punishing unions unpopular with the electorate, will be just as aggressive in trimming costs.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more information, visit


Please, BlackBerry, let me type ‘HR’

My BlackBerry doesn’t respect the human resources profession. Neither does yours.

By Todd Humber (

My BlackBerry doesn’t respect the human resources profession. Neither does yours. Oh, it’s not a “hit you over the head” kind of dissing — it doesn’t make disparaging remarks about the return on investment of training programs or snicker during talk of the benefits of investing in wellness initiatives.

It’s more of a subtle dig. If you have one clipped to your waist, you probably already know what I’m talking about. The BlackBerry simply won’t let you type “HR” — not in an email, not in a text message, not even in a BBM instant message.

It insists — and it does this every single time — on changing “HR” to “hour.”

Research In Motion (RIM) Co-Chief Executive Jim Balsillie smiles as he poses with a PlayBook tablet computer and a Blackberry Torch. (Photo: Aly Song/Reuters)

This doesn’t happen with any other profession. It lets me type accountant and “CA” without feeling the urge to step in and correct me. I can thumb my way, uninterrupted, through “DR” and doctor.

Pick an occupational acronym, no matter how obscure, and the device won’t flinch. IT? It practically types that itself. There’s also a healthy dose of respect for the medical community — emergency medical technician (EMT), registered nurse (RN) and registered practical nurse (RPN) all get a green light.

It doesn’t mess with organizational acronyms — federal government agencies such as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) all pass muster.

So why no such love for HR? Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, founders and co-CEOs of Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind the BlackBerry, surely understand the importance of good HR practices. The company’s headcount has exploded over the last decade.

In 1998, it had about 200 employees. By the end of fiscal 2010, that figure had risen to 14,000 and earlier this month there were more than 1,300 positions posted on its job board.

It even set up a booth at last month’s Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) conference in Toronto in a recruitment effort aimed at luring HR professionals to its Waterloo, Ont., headquarters.

So the blame here, clearly, rests solely at the feet of RIM’s programmers. The technogeeks will point out we can set up a custom spell check to circumnavigate the “HR-hour” problem. True, but that’s not gratifying — revenge seems more apropos.

In that spirit, here’s a memo to RIM’s hour department, on behalf of hour professionals worldwide… hold on a second. Where’s that button for the custom spell check?

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more information, visit

Lining our pockets for retirement

Pooled registered pension plans (PRPPs) may not be a panacea, but they’re a step in the right direction

By Todd Humber (

Everybody wins when retirees have more money. The more purchasing power workers have as they ride into their golden years, the better off the economy will be.

Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks during a news conference in Ottawa in January. Flaherty has unveiled the latest acronym in retirement jargon — PRPPs, short for pooled registered pension plans. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The one potential loser is HR departments trying to retain valuable talent — but offer challenging work and employers will be able to keep the best on staff and coax great talent out of retirement, as article 8951 illustrates.

But let’s get back to retirement nest eggs, or the lack thereof — about 38 per cent of employees were members of a registered pension plan as of Jan. 1, 2009, the most recent data available from Statistics Canada. In the public sector, 84 per cent of workers had a pension scheme of some type, while in the private sector only about one-quarter had coverage.

Set aside, for now, the debate on whether taxpayers can afford (or are willing) to pay for public sector defined benefit (DB) plans into the future. Anyway you slice it, it’s hard to put a positive spin on the fraction of private sector workers covered by an RPP.

That’s why there has been so much hand-wringing in Ottawa — and across the country — about what to do to boost retirement income. Labour groups, and some provinces, have called on the federal government to expand the Canada Pension Plan.

It’s a simple plan: Force employers and employees to put more into it and pay out a bigger benefit. The scheme is already in place, it covers pretty much every worker and there’s not much legwork to do except for some actuarial math.

But employers aren’t chomping at the bit for more payroll taxes and, with a Conservative government at the helm, that scenario was unlikely from the start. Instead, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveiled the latest acronym in retirement jargon — PRPPs, short for pooled registered pension plans. Senior editor Sarah Dobson walks employers through PRPPs in article 8952. But, essentially, a PRPP is designed to give employers the ability to easily set up a defined contribution plan for workers and take advantage of the cost savings of being part of a large pool — no fuss, no muss.

Critics point out PRPPs aren’t DB plans — they don’t guarantee any income level whatsoever. And because it looks like participation won’t be mandatory, there’s concern many employers will opt out.

So it’s not a panacea. But it’s a positive step that will give employers — particularly small and medium-sized firms — more options and will undoubtedly lead to more workers saving for retirement. Let’s give Ottawa a tip of the hat for that.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more information, visit