Opinion: Public-sector wages can’t be ignored

The legislature won’t reconvene until next week, but already the new United Conservative government is sparring with unionized public servants.

The government is trying to delay arbitration that will determine nurses’ wages, while it comes to grips with Alberta’s finances, which have led to a string of multibillion-dollar deficits over the past several years.

Paying the interest on the growing debt diverts money away from cherished public priorities.

The nurses’ union naturally condemns the government’s tactic, but surely if Premier Jason Kenney is going to live up to his promise of balancing the budget before the next election, he has to look at where the money is going.

Wages account for a tremendous portion of the cost of government, just as salaries are a critical component of the budget of any company or non-profit agency.

The nurses’ union, along with other public-sector unions, gambled that if they agreed to wage freezes in the initial years of their contracts, they’d be rewarded once the NDP was safely back in power.

The unions’ wager is going to be tested in coming months, despite the money and energies they expended in support of Rachel Notley’s party during the recent election.

This isn’t to say public-sector workers aren’t valued, or they aren’t entitled to fair treatment. Albertans have good reason to be proud of those who provide important public services. They have our respect and appreciation.

Kenney has appointed a panel of experts to review Alberta’s ledgers, and wages and benefits are certain to come under scrutiny. Experienced teachers, for instance, were paid an average of $94,103 in 2017, according to Statistics Canada.

While that’s on par with compensation in Ontario, it’s $12,826 more than a similarly trained and experienced teacher earned in British Columbia, and $11,380 more than the teacher would be paid in Saskatchewan.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association has approximately 46,000 members. Even if the over payment was just $10,000 per teacher, that means taxpayers are shelling out $460 million per year more than our neighbours in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Alberta’s total public per-person spending is 21 per cent more than British Columbia’s, according to the Fraser Institute. Parity would go a long way to balancing the books.

High public-sector compensation has been enabled by political parties of all stripes. For years, hefty resource revenues reduced any incentive to limit the cost of government, so wages and benefits were allowed to rise without consternation.

Everyone knows Alberta’s economic environment has changed dramatically. Oil and gas companies have responded, shedding thousands of workers from their payrolls. Many of those still fortunate to be employed have had their hours reduced or accepted wage cuts.

Public-sector unions can’t imagine their members are immune from such realities, even after agreeing to recent wage freezes. Remember, after all, many union members still move up the wage grid each year, padding their pay regardless of the cruel financial winds buffeting the private-sector economy.

Alberta public-sector union leaders often talk about protecting front-line services, which is code for increasing government spending so civil servants’ wages can continue to rise unrealistically.

If union leaders were truly concerned about preserving front-line services, they’d acknowledge an honest conversation that saves jobs is needed. That’s what the new government appears committed to doing to safeguard public services while respecting taxpayers.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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