rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Too many non-union managers, not union members, drive up Alberta government costs

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

The late Peter Drucker, management guru

Did you know that last year there was one manager for every 5.4 people employed directly by the Alberta government?

Think about that ratio the next time you're tempted to blame unions for the cost of providing public services in this province, as we have been conditioned to do by 40 years of neo-conservative brainwashing that assails unions and lauds the dubious benefits of "free markets."

Throughout the private and public sectors in other North American jurisdictions a more normal ratio would be about one manager for every 10 employees. When Bill Clinton was president of the United States, he made an effort to increase the manager-to-staff ratio in the U.S. public service to one to 14. Oft-quoted management guru Tom Peters suggests that an ideal ratio is about one to 25.

But here in Alberta, in addition to that group of approximately 19,500 unionized civil servants directly employed by Alberta's provincial government in 2010, there were 4,437 direct government employees officially designated non-union "managers" in the middle of that year. The resulting management-to-employee ratio was thus about one manager for every 5.4 civil servants!

The impacts on any enterprise of having too many managers and too many layers of management are well known. A number of the symptoms found in a variety of sources on management practice include:

-    Higher costs
-    Lower productivity
-    Slower decision making
-    Muddled communications
-    More paperwork
-    More meetings
-    Bad staff morale
-    Lower employee satisfaction

The opposite side of the equation is worth considering too. The late Peter Drucker, another well-known dispenser of management advice, argued that having more staff per manager leads to improved organizational performance -- and results in better management too.

The impacts on the costs of government in Alberta are particularly severe, since non-union managers are not only paid more, they receive more generous benefits, more generous pensions and more generous perks.

Moreover, as alert readers will recall, back in 2009 the matter of $44 million in "achievement bonuses" -- read "free money" -- for civil service managers in Alberta became a political problem for the government of then-premier Ed Stelmach. It was revealed that between 2006 and 2009, nearly $160 million of taxpayers' contributions were paid to civil service managers -- who were already much better compensated than their union counterparts.

Indeed, even those sums did not reflect the true cost of the achievement bonus program, since it extended back to the late 1990s under Premier Ralph Klein, who pushed the idea that the civil service should be run in a similar manner to the private sector. This was to be done, I guess, to get the same lousy results. Because your average rank-and-file Alberta public employee is well educated and motivated, she doesn't really require a lot of supervision to do a good job.

After the brouhaha in 2009, the bonuses were suspended for a time. It seems likely they will return, if they haven't already, driving costs up even more.

Arguably, the ratio is actually somewhat worse than these numbers alone suggest because there were another 2,337 government of Alberta employees in mid-2010 who were excluded from union membership -- some for legitimate reasons, and some for reasons that are not so legitimate.

These included close to 600 IT staffers, whose exclusion from union membership makes no logical sense, and 275 members of the personal staffs of senior managers, whose exclusion can be more readily understood. Other categories of employees excluded from union membership include people working in personnel policies and programs, employees of the Legislative Assembly, personal staff of cabinet ministers, labour relations officers, staff of the Lieutenant Governor and the like.

Include these people, and you get a ratio of one non-union employee for every 3.9 members of the provincial public employees' union.

Of course, some of those 4,437 managers may manage non-union employees, and the number of unionized employees fluctuates seasonally and over time -- though not that much. Without being privy to the government's latest private information, we can't really know with perfect accuracy, but it's safe to say that such variables would not make much difference in the final ratios.

We need to remember numbers like these when we hear the likes of Catherine Swift, president of the so-called Canadian Federation of Independent Business (which, as has been noted in this space before, consistently works against the healthy and flourishing middle-class communities that make independent businesses prosper), saying, "what would be ideal is getting rid of public-sector unions entirely."

After all, right-wing bloviators, "think tanks," media and politicians have all become sophisticated at getting middle-class citizens to blame public employees and their unions for the level of taxes required to pay for the cost of government.

To a significant degree, this is a conjuring trick, in which the illusionists (all the usual suspects noted above) direct the attention of their audience to the modest salaries and benefits of unionized public workers so that they aren't looking at the elephant on the stage -- the vastly more expensive tax dodges, giveaways and subsidies available to the wealthy, not to mention the incredibly low royalties charged for resources that belong to us all.

Still, there's some truth to the popular notion that we could help preserve our quality public services at lower cost through better allocation of resources -- especially since we know the number of unionized Alberta government employees has barely changed since Klein's destructive privatization spree in the mid-1990s.

A good place to start finding ways to use our resources better might be by looking at the excessive numbers and layers of unproductive and expensive non-union managers in the public service.

Instead, Premier Alison Redford's emphasis has been once again to talk about looking for services that can be privatized -- a guarantee both of higher costs in the long run and deteriorating, profit-driven, unaccountable public services in the shorter term.

She would do better to focus her famously steely resolve on culling the glut of overpriced managers from the civil service.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.