Wages and benefits for unionized government employees make up more than half of every dollar spent by provincial and local governments in Canada.
This is why the current legal battle between the BC teachers’ union and the BC government is so important. Their decade-long fight is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada this November, and if the union wins, it will mean no duly-elected government in Canada could legislate policy contrary to anything negotiated with a union.
Government union bosses across the country know that the result is vitally important in keeping their gravy train running. Eighteen unions applied to the Supreme Court for intervenor status – 12 were accepted. Only one citizens’ group on the other side of the argument applied – the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) – and it was rejected.
In the battle between big government and big unions over big tax dollars, the country’s highest court has decided there’s just no need for the little people – the taxpayers – to be heard.
This might have made sense if the Court limited its judgments to protecting truly fundamental freedoms. However, its recent judgments expanding freedom of association to protect the economic and contractual rights of unions can have serious impacts on government’s budgetary spending priorities.
The BC teachers’ union is effectively trying to constitutionalize collective agreements, so that nothing granted by a government to a union could ever be altered without the union’s permission. In practice, it means that union-friendly politicians, on their political deathbed, could sign long-term contracts with their favourite government employees’ union, promising massive wage increases, job protection, or gold-plated pension payments – you name it – and no future government could do anything about it.
Sound crazy? Manitoba’s NDP signed a five-year deal with their union in January, promising that nobody could get fired in those five years. At the time the NDP were only months away from an election and in third place in the polls – 20 points behind the now-governing PC Party. And if the BC teachers’ union wins at the Supreme Court, the new Manitoba government won’t be able to fire anyone unless the union agrees to it.
The CTF wanted to argue in the BC teachers case that making policy and prioritizing how tax dollars are spent is the job of the people we elect: politicians who we can vote out – not union bosses beyond voters’ reach. The freedom of association must be understood in a way that preserves the ability of governments to remain responsive to democratic influences and changing socio-economic circumstances in the course of public policy making.
The Court wasn’t interested in hearing from the people paying the bills. Yet they’ll hear from a dozen different unions, all of whom will simply parrot the BC teachers’ union lines in an effort to claw more money and more decision-making authority from taxpaying citizens. In effect, many government employee unions believe taxpayers work for them, not the other way around.
It will be up to the governments lining up with BC – including Canada, Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Saskatchewan – to try and stop the unions from winning an expensive victory over taxpayers.
You’ll forgive us for being a bit nervous at the thought of governments led by Rachel Notley and Kathleen Wynne siding with taxpayers over the unions. They haven’t exactly fostered much confidence in that regard.
The Supreme Court had already fallen into the trap of thinking that “government” pays for education, health care and all the employees that provide the same. They don’t. Government has no money apart from what it collects in taxes. The CTF wanted to emphasize not only importance of controlling costs, but also the constitutional authority of elected governments to manage services and maintain control over public policy decisions. It’s a shame the Supreme Court isn’t interested in hearing this broader perspective.
Jordan Bateman, British Columbia Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation