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Our politicians don't mess with unions for good reason

Gone are the days when a life in the public sector involved a trade-off - slightly lower pay for better benefits, job security, and a defined-benefit pension.

Gone are the days when a life in the public sector involved a trade-off - slightly lower pay for better benefits, job security, and a defined-benefit pension. “Getting on with the government” has actually become a regional colloquialism in the Yukon, as if securing a position is the peak of one’s career trajectory.

Meanwhile, private sector employers - trapped as they are by the basic economics of revenue and cost and without access to a billion dollars in federal transfers - lament the difficulty of competing with the big machine for qualified staff.

And now, with a groundbreaking decision by the Supreme Court of Canada against the Saskatchewan government, the power of unions also has a solid constitutional foundation.

The ruling is prompted by the Saskatchewan Party’s decision several years ago to pass legislation pertaining to which government workers should be considered “essential,” so and so forbidden from going on strike. In such disputes, governments want a large list of essential employees to minimize disruptions, while unions want a smaller list to put more pressure on government to accede to their demands.

The Saskatchewan Party passed a law that said, in the event of a disagreement between the union and the government over whether a worker is essential, the government has final say. The Supreme Court found that this unilateral power violated the constitutional “right to strike” and struck the law down.

In recent years the Supreme Court has moved in a decidedly pro-union direction. When I started law school less than a decade ago there was no constitutional “right to strike.” But since then the courts have cemented the idea that the government does not have carte blanche to create laws favouring employers in collective bargaining.

Where this takes us in the future remains to be seen, but here in the Yukon, it may make it even more difficult to imagine the territorial government taking on the unions. In the provinces, negotiations over new collective agreements with a public service union is big news, while in the Yukon it quietly passes under the radar. Even after 12 years of an ostensibly “conservative” Yukon Party government, the public service has continued to grow in both size and compensation.

This must be due to the substantial political clout that unions enjoy in the Yukon. According to the Yukon Bureau of Statistics’ December 2014 employment report there are 7,900 public employees in the Yukon, while 40.9 per cent of all employed Yukoners work for a municipality, a First Nation, the federal government or the Yukon government. The Yukon government alone employs about 5,000 people.

Few issues move votes like pocketbook issues, and our terms of employment are the epitome of a pocketbook issue. So it is no surprise that Yukon politicians are hesitant to take a hard line in union negotiations. In the 2011 general election, only 15,797 Yukoners cast ballots, so a bloc of 5,000 voters is not something that a politician can afford to alienate. The last Yukon politician to take a really hard line with the public service was the late John Ostashek back in the early 1990s, and he paid dearly in the next election.

Despite the considerable power enjoyed by Yukon’s public-sector unions, many members continue to react as if any push-back to union demands is an attack on organized labour. There is an unfortunate tendency on the pro-union side to return discussions about specific negotiations and strike actions to the important historical role played by unions. It doesn’t matter if a proposed annual wage increase is financially prudent, because unions are essential to protecting the middle class, or so the non sequitor goes.

I expect some readers will view this column as being anti-organized labour. Nothing could be further from the truth. I fully acknowledge the crucial role played by unions in elevating the middle class and ameliorating the harsh working conditions that existed before collective bargaining. Unions have played and continue to play a significant role in protecting workers.

In fact, there are a number of sectors - like fast food and retail - where I would like to see a significant increase in the rate of unionization. These employees are in desperate need of an improvement to their standard of living, and the proliferation of low paying non-unionized service industry jobs is a stain on our status as a just society.

However, it is possible to recognize the historically important role played by unions without reflexively siding with them in every situation, particularly in the public sector where they enjoy significant political clout and legal protection.

Unions can’t just be viewed as a bulwark against economic power. They must also be recognized as organizations geared towards the pursuit of their members’ interests. Whether or not contract demands are in the interests of the “middle class” or not - particularly when those demands are being made of “middle class” taxpayers - always depends on the context.

Disclosure: I am a private-sector employer with a spouse employed with the government.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.