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 (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

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 www.hrreporter.com.

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