Writing in iPolitics, former House speaker Peter Milliken sets up the Nov. 26 MLI debate on the resolution: "The right to strike has no place in the public sector", which will take place at the Canadian War Museum. "The federal Conservative government has indicated that it would like to intervene when federal workers negotiate with Crown Corporations and government departments to make sure that negotiated settlements are not too far out of line with those in the broader economy", notes Milliken, making the latest edition of the Great Canadian Debates particularly timely. Moderated by Milliken, economist Jim Stanford will argue against the resolution and professor Tom Flanagan will argue in favour.

Peter Milliken, Nov. 21, 2013

Some people think that it was a big mistake for Prime Minister Lester Pearson to give federal workers the right to strike following an illegal postal union wildcat strike in 1965. Did we make a mistake in Canada by passing the Public Service Staff Relations Act? Or were we merely protecting workers' rights?

One can argue that government sector workers should have the same bargaining power as unionized workers in the private sector and that those rights should be protected through the right to strike and collective bargaining. In the name of equality, all unions — public or private — should have the right to bargain aggressively and fairly for their members.

On the other hand, an argument can be made that public sector workers have a different mandate from private sector workers when it comes to withholding their services from the public. Pubic sector workers also have an unfair advantage when bargaining with the public through their politicians. Private companies have a strong incentive to control costs, but public sector unions engage with politicians and bureaucrats — who negotiate with taxpayers' money.

That may be one reason why public sector unions have grown stronger. Nationally, union density has declined from 34 per cent over the past 15 years to about 31 per cent today. That might look like a modest change but it's a persistent trend. The real shift is in the split between public and private sector unionization levels. Today, 70 per cent of government workers are unionized — compared to just 18 per cent in the private sector.

And the evidence is clear that public sector workers such as teachers, civil servants, health workers and university professors have, through the use of strike action, been able to secure better wages and pensions than workers in the private sector. This has caused resentment in the private sector.

The federal Conservative government has indicated that it would like to intervene when federal workers negotiate with Crown Corporations and government departments to make sure that negotiated settlements are not too far out of line with those in the broader economy. In the private sector, for example, only 9 per cent of workers have defined benefit pension plans, compared to 50 per cent of workers in the public sector.

In the recent resolution of their own strike, Canada's diplomats successfully charged the federal government with bargaining in bad faith after a labour board ruling. In the end the Treasury Board and the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers came to an agreement that paid about 60 per cent of PAFSO's wage demands. But the strike was the longest in the federal public service since collective bargaining was introduced in the 1960s, fulfilling a promise by the federal government to protect the public purse.

But perhaps it's unfair to compare public sector settlements to those for private sector unions. Generous public sector settlements may not be sufficient reason to hamper the ability of public workers to be treated fairly for their work. Many factors may be at play here — including different levels of education, skills and responsibilities.

It has been argued that public sector unions in Canada have had to pay the price for austerity programs, privatization, taxpayer backlash and restrictions on union rights, and state-led attacks against public sector workers have reached a fever pitch, raising the question of the role played by public sector unions in protecting their members and the broader public interest.

These are some of the issues that will be debated Tuesday, Nov. 26, at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's second Great Canadian Debate, to be held at the Canadian War Museum. The resolution will be 'The right to strike has no place in the public service.'

Arguing against the resolution and for government worker rights will be Jim Stanford, senior economist for Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union. Stanford was also chief economist for the Canadian Auto Workers. He is a well-known author and columnist and a frequent commentator on economic and labour relations in the national media.

Defending the resolution will be Tom Flanagan, a widely published author and academic and former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is a frequent contributor to many publications, including the Globe and Mail, National Post, Maclean's and Time. He also appears regularly as a commentator on national issues for TV and radio.

It should be an exciting debate — one that promises to be of enormous interest to people in Canada's capital.

Former House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is moderator of the 2013-14 season of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Great Canadian Debates series. For more information click here.

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