Sick leave and city workers: Public sector unions under attack

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The city workers on strike in Toronto are taking a beating in the mainstream media over the sick leave provisions in their contract. Those provisions -- and I am relying on the media here to have it right -- provide for 18 days a year or a day and half a month.

There would be no controversy if it ended there.  But what has the anti-union crowd agitated is the fact the sick leaves accumulates year over year and can be taken out effectively as salary in lieu of time off when the employee retires.

The Toronto Star's Richard Gwyn
divines from this issue that the entire Canadian population is becoming convinced that "public sector unions and quite possibly public sector workers of all kinds are out of control."

That's quite a leap Richard, and is in fact sheer nonsense. There is lots of evidence to the contrary. One example from B.C. was the illegal teachers' strike in 2005 that lasted 10 days and saw public support for the teachers increase daily until it plateaued in the last few days.

But there is an issue here. Union bashers like Gwyn (and he is not the worst) will take any opportunity to pronounce on how the public is sick of unions. So perhaps the question is should unions be more careful about handing critics such rich opportunities to attack them?

For the better part of the last 30 years neo-liberals and their various megaphones -- the Fraser Institute, the National Post, the Asper media, etc -- have been deliberately demonizing public sector workers as part of the ideological assault on social democracy and its accomplishments.

The strategy was as simple as it was brutal: portray public sector workers as selfish, overpaid, lazy, privileged and puffed up with a sense of entitlement and, by doing so, drive a wedge between citizens and those who provide them with the services they need.

Why? So that when right wing governments slashed public services citizens would be less inclined to complain at the sight of thousands of public sector workers being laid off -- as was done by Paul Martin in his 1995 budget. In that instance, while there was a campaign against the cuts by unions and their civil society partners, there was scant sympathy for public workers. The groundwork of denigrating those workers had been done.

To what extent should public sector unions and their members take account of this political and ideological issue when collective bargaining? The fact is that Canadians, if asked to consider the question, are pretty supportive of those who provide them their huge variety of services. They understand that there is an organic relationship between the community and those who serve it.

But no matter how nasty their employers get, public sector unions need to be constantly aware of that relationship and nurture it -- both because it is the right thing to do (there should be a dedication to the community) and it is strategically smart. It is surprisingly easy to trigger the opposite sentiment in the "public" -- the one that says to public employees, "You work for me!" -- as if every citizen was the boss of every public employee.

In the case of the sick leave issue it comes down to fairness -- perhaps the strongest core Canadian value there is. My take is that most people look at sick leave as a right. Accumulating sick leave and using it when actually sick is totally acceptable. But being able to cash it in on retirement will be seen by many as crossing the line, violating the understanding between community and those who serve it. 

Right or wrong, when unions sign collective agreements it would be wise for them to spend a bit of time imagining how each contract provision might be used against them the next time they strike -- and hope for their well-deserved public support.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for is a member supported non-profit media site -- please become a member today and get some great 'thank you' gifts, including a signed book by your choice of leading Canadian authors.

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