To listen to Toronto’s Mayor, Mel Lastman tell it, those striking municipal workers have a lot of nerve – what they’re after is jobs for life.

Now, admittedly in this downsized, mean-and-lean-to the-bone age that we live in, that’s a pretty wild request. But it’s not like asking for a handout or a stock option or some kind of executive-style retirement bonus. We’re not looking at an Eleanor Clitheroe (CEO Hydro One) situation.

This is about having a job, a modest job. Working by the sweat of one’s brow for a living. And staying loyal to the same employer. Didn’t those used to be considered good things? Should we be outraged that people want something along those lines?

In fact, “jobs-for-life” is a distortion. The municipal workers are trying to hold on to the right to some job security after ten years of service.

Of course, that sort of security is rare these days. But should we necessarily give in to the corporate vision of a world where workers are gradually stripped of all the protections they won in hard-fought battles over the last century? Will we continue to be co-operative when we’re told that having the security of a home address is something we can no longer expect in the global economy?

It always strikes me as odd that there is so little sympathy expressed in the media for the plight of people who perform dirty tasks, like cleaning washrooms or removing garbage.

I’m sure I’ve encountered more media commentaries in recent months expressing sympathy for the hard life of the Queen of England. (I suppose she thinks she has some God-given right to a job for life.)

What seems to be behind this strike is the fact that Toronto is considering privatizing a lot of its services. Now that’s pretty standard these days. The notion that relying on the private sector is the way to go has become so deeply ingrained in the political culture that it goes virtually unquestioned.

But shouldn’t recent reports of disastrous corporate behaviour – Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Andersen, et cetera – allow us to finally move away from the knee-jerk assertion that the private sector always does things better? Of course, there has never been any evidence to back up that private-sector-is-better assertion. Privatizing generally just adds another layer – the private contractor – needing to be paid. So someone’s got to be squeezed somewhere.

The squeeze hits the worker, who is replaced with a cheaper non-union worker. The saving allows the contractor to take a profit. So, instead of the maintenance of our city being the source of a good job, it becomes the source of a lousy job.

Interestingly, a study by Toronto’s Centre for Social Justice notes that unionized jobs have been one of the few bright spots for minorities hoping for a chance to improve their meagre incomes. When we take away that hope, will we all feel a little better?

Another problem with privatized solutions is that there’s little assessment of what’s been lost or gained.

It’s worth recalling, for instance, what happened in 1997 when the Ontario government came up with a bright idea to cut welfare costs. Rather than using funds from the Ministry of Community and Social Services to help desperate families cover the cost of rent and food, why not spend millions of those dollars to hire expensive private consultants to figure out how to cut some of these needy people off? Now there’s some fresh thinking. Somebody’s clearly been to business school.

So the government signed a $180-million dollar contract with Andersen Consulting. (Yes, our government spotted the star material in this up-and-coming firm even before its American affiliate made it big as one of the central players in the Enron fiasco.)

But how to evaluate the results? The provincial auditor raised some serious questions about the scheme in two of his annual reports, including consulting fees that ranged as high as $575 an hour.

But the Ontario Tories always point to the shrinking of the welfare rolls as one of their big achievements.

That the ranks of the homeless swelled — and the untold misery behind each one of those stories — is never factored in. Where does that show up on the bottom line?

In fact, we can be pretty sure we’ll end up paying plenty for it, when we add in all the medical, legal and prison costs associated with creating more dysfunctional people living on our streets. But by then, those responsible will have moved on – the politicians will have all retired, the consultants will all be âe¦ well, who knows? And the blame can then be squarely laid on the street people themselves for their unwillingness to get a job âe¦ a regular job that is, not a job for life âe¦

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Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...