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We frown on smiles! The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is unhappy to learn public-sector workers are happy

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Aaron Wudrick

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Employees in the Canadian public sector are far too happy and the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation wants it to stop right now!

In revealing comments in the Globe and Mail, CTF "federal director"* Aaron Wudrick complained about the results of a recent survey by Forbes magazine that revealed a clear majority of Canadian workers who would recommend their employer to a friend or family member are employed in the public sector.

According to the U.S. business magazine's poll, six of the top 10 Canadian employers and 14 of the top 25 are, as the Globe and Mail described it, "taxpayer funded."

This is cause for concern, according to Wudrick and dutifully reprinted in the Globe. "It's very easy to make an employee happy if you're spending money that's not yours," he grumped, seemingly forgetting that many of the taxpayers his employer purports to look out for are in fact public employees too.

"The reality is that it's very easy for public sector entities to be 'good employers' if it means they're paying very generously and giving very generous benefits, because that comes out of taxpayers' pockets," Wudrick explicated, making sure readers of Canada's National Website would get the CTF’s message that taxpayers can only be happy if public employees are miserable, preferably miserably unemployed.

As usual with the mainstream media reports of CTF operatives' bloviations, the Globe story is written in a fashion designed to lend credibility to the CTF's assumptions about public employment and to reinforce the organization's self-described role as a "tax watchdog," which it is not.

In fact, it is not at all clear, as the CTF and the Globe pretend, that the reason for the generally high rates of job satisfaction among Canadian public employees is the result of pay and benefits that are supposedly higher than those of employees who do comparable work in the private sector. In his remarks to the Globe, Wudrick presents no evidence for this proposition, which is far from a foregone conclusion if you compare workers within job categories, rather than simply the public sector with the entire private sector and its vast army of unskilled minimum-wage workers.

Of course, the CTF, and Wudrick as one of its presumably well-paid spokespeople, want to focus on the costs to the public of a happy public sector as opposed to the benefits. This is natural given what is quite obviously the CTF's true role as an Astroturf group with the dual mission of attacking and weakening unions and transferring the tax load from corporations to ordinary citizens, viz., "taxpayers."

The three observations noted in the sentence above about the true purpose of the CTF, by the way, are all fair comments based on evidence:

  1. The CTF's actual membership structure allows only board members, not individuals who have been persuaded to click a button on a website to indicate support or get more information, to have access to key information about the organization. The CTF completely lacks transparency about its own finances. This clearly meets the definition of Astroturfing, "the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants."
  2. The fact that past and present members of the group's board play prominent roles in anti-union organizations in addition to their CTF duties. Interestingly, Canadian Labour Watch Association president and tireless anti-labour campaigner John Mortimer, a long-time CTF director, is no longer listed on the group's website as one of its actual members, of which at the moment there are only four.
  3. The CTF's consistent assumption that public sector services are more expensive and less efficient than their private sector alternatives, a position that is neither supported by the facts nor likely to result in lower cost public services.

Regardless of the level of pay and benefits in public employment -- which tends to be exaggerated by corporate-financed research groups like the Fraser Institute that are ideologically allied with the CTF -- it is said here this is not the real reason for the relative happiness of public sector employees with their jobs and employers.

More plausible explanations for this level of satisfaction are that public employees are more likely to be union members and thus have the advantages of fair treatment and due process in the workplace, that they enjoy more transparency and less discrimination in the workplace than are common in the private sector, and yes, that they are more likely to have permanent employment and fair benefits, including the opportunity for a secure retirement.

If they are better paid, another factor will be because they are more likely to be educated and qualified workers whose skills are in demand.

But an analysis last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives of public and private sector wages based on National Household Survey data showed that "wages are higher in the public sector precisely for those groups of people who experience the greatest discrimination in the private sector -- because the public sector goes further in correcting those discriminatory practices."

Importantly, the CCPA also found, "salaries are lower in the public sector for the groups least likely to experience discrimination on the basis of race and sex."

The CCPA concluded: "If private sector compensation looked more like public sector compensation, the gender wage gap would narrow, discrimination against Aboriginal and visible minority workers would diminish, and CEOs would take a pay cut. Older workers would be less likely to retire into poverty. Fewer working parents would have to choose between a day's wage and taking time off to look after a sick kid. Unemployment rolls would not double overnight in response to global market shifts."

Not mentioned by the CCPA, but certainly also a consideration to the CTF and organizations of its ilk, is the pressure the conditions of public sector employment put on private sector employers to treat their workers as human beings, not parts in a machine to be discarded when they are broken. As far as right-wing Astroturf groups like the CTF are concerned, this should be discouraged.

In other words, there is a price to our country and its citizens of having more Canadians in public employment, and there is a price to having fewer so employed. As the CCPA argues and its figures illustrate, only one of them is worth paying!

Readers should ask themselves: Just what kind of a "taxpayer watchdog" consistently takes the positions advocated by the CTF, and why? The answers are pretty obvious and it's not because the CTF is interested in the wellbeing of ordinary taxpaying Canadians or the small business owners who do business with them in their own communities.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca. *Almost everyone employed by the CTF has the title “director.”

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