Transit Service: Essential Service or Not?

¬†Queen’s Park is currently faced with a bill to make the TTC an essential service and the debate of whether this is a good thing or not has been and will be discussed. For the most part, I am in favour of it for a few reasons, some specific to the TTC and some as a general matter of principle where it comes to the public sector.

In the case of the TTC specifically, I simply do not accept the “it will cost more” argument against it. The premise of this argument is that essential service designation means that disputes will go to binding arbitration and that almost always favours the union position that in turn results in more costly settlements. Aside from the sequence of assumptions with this line of thinking, the reason I don’t accept the argument is that all disputes in recent history have ended with back-to-work legislation that involved binding arbitration. If we assume the premise that binding arbitration costs us more, then why should the public be subjected to the inconvenience of strike action and that extra cost? If that cost is inevitable, should we not at least have the benefit of being free from strikes and the stress of wondering if arrangements may have to be made in case of a strike?

In the more general sense of public service employees as a whole, I personally believe that right to strike should not be available to the public service. That is not saying they should not have the right to bargain collectively, only that they should not be able to withhold their services as a bargaining “tool”. The reason for this is simple: that “tool” does not have a direct effect on the employer the way it does in the private sector. If a company that makes widgets has its employees go out on strike, it has a direct effect on their ability to make sales. When public service employees go on strike, the government continues to collect taxes.

Does this mean that the entire public sector is an “Essential Service”? Perhaps it does, but perhaps it means that government should take a closer look at what services it provides. There are many services that should be managed by the government, but could be best delivered by the private sector. Government provided services by definition are essential, and anything else should be contracted out.

Contracting out brings us back to the issue of strikes. As much as I believe that the public sector should not have the right to strike, I also believe that private sector unions should have that right. Contracting out services to the private sector brings back the possibility of strikes, but only if the politicians and the bureaucrats are not doing their job. For instance, take the yahoos who make their living off the tax payers in York Region who signed a five-year contract with Veolia Transportation to operate southwestern bus routes for YRT. No contract should ever be signed that has a duration longer than any collective agreement in place between that company and its employees. To be fair, perhaps the contract has the provision that would allow termination of the contract in the case of a strike, but I have my doubts such a provision is in place.

Finally, there is one other issue when it comes to making the entire public service subjected to binding arbitration. I would not want to see this done without addressing the issue of what binding arbitration entails. There should be legislated guidelines in place, including some for of a labour court, regarding how binding arbitration should take place. The aim should be to encourage negotiated settlements, but would provide some form of means-testing for demands from either side of the dispute to determine who should prevail.

One Response to “Transit Service: Essential Service or Not?”

  1. Tom West Says:

    You argue that public sector workers shouldn’t strike because a strike doesn’t harm the employer, unlike in the private sector. However, a strike (generally) makes the government unpopular with voters, and therefore it *does* harm the employer.

    Cal’s comment: You call that harm? Private sector strikes have an immediate, or nearly immediate effect on the bottom line. A public sector strike doesn’t necessarily make the government unpopular with voters, and if it did it would only harm the government if it occurs very close to an election. Like it or not, voters have a remarkable talent for displaying a lack of long term memory. That’s not to say it will never harm the government, just that its effect is substantially diminished.

    Further, if the right to withhold your labour (by striking) is removed, then that is the same as saying you must be forced to work. That should only be the case where your work has a direct and significant impact on public safety. (Hence why the police and prison officers cannot strike). In Ontario, ambulence workers can strike (except during contract negotiations), and they save lives every day.

    I disagree with that definition of ‘essential’ on two counts. First, nobody is “forced to work”. One chooses to work for the government and could just as easily choose to work somewhere else. On the second count, I believe that anything I am forced to pay for is by definition ‘essential’.