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What are the odds of a public-servants' strike at about the same time as the next general election? From this chair, the chances appear about 50-50.
The Conservatives believe they can make the case that the federal public service is overpaid. All parties are competing to win the affections of the mythical, mystical middle class. The government is betting it can win over the private-sector middle class by taking on the public-sector middle class. Politically, it's a gamble, but the sort of gamble this government likes.
Wages and benefits in the federal public service, according to several sources, are significantly higher than the private-sector average. The C.D. Howe Institute, a conservative think tank, estimated earlier this year that the average cost of employing a full-time federal worker (including wages and all benefits) doubled from $56,700 in 1999 to $114,100 in 2012. The private sector average increased by less than half, from $33,300 to $49,000.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates that federal public servants are paid 17 per cent more than their private-sector counterparts. (The CFIB report was based on 2006 census date. An update is expected later this year.) Treasury Board President Tony Clement told The Globe and Mail that the government is determined to close that gap.
"Most of Canada works in the private sector," he said. "They're used to seeing wages of a certain sort, benefits of a certain sort, pensions of a certain sort, and I do believe we have to be within spitting distance of that when it comes to the broader public sector as well."
While he declined to disclose the government's negotiating position going into contract talks – most of which will occur in 2014 with contracts expiring in 2015 – he did say the government believed "we've got to make up some ground" in narrowing the wage-and-benefit gap between the public and private sector.
To make up that ground, the Conservatives are taking a three-pronged approach. First, the budget implementation bill gives the government the power to dictate the bargaining positions of crown corporations, and allows a Treasury Board official to be present at the negotiations – making that official the real power in the room.
The goal here is to bring wages, benefits and pensions in the broader public service more in line with the core public service.
Second, the government has given itself a mandate, when negotiating with unions representing the core public service, of "aligning the public service compensation and benefits to private sector norms and expectations," as Mr. Clement put it. That can only mean wage and benefit restraint, and possibly claw-backs in some areas.
Third, the Conservatives plan to take a tougher line on disciplining, and even firing, underperforming public servants.
"I think it is perfectly reasonable for management to work with an underperformer, try to get him or her up to performance standards and if that fails after successive tries, then I think that we have the right to say that perhaps this job isn't for you," Mr. Clement explained.
Sum it all up and what do you get? Turmoil. Public sector unions, like their private-sector counterparts, seek to preserve and improve wages and benefits, and fight ferociously to keep either from being clawed back.
If the Conservatives are determined to align the wage and benefits packages of the crown corps with those of the core public service, even as they move to restrain the wages and benefits of the core public service, then there will be strikes.
Governing parties usually try to avoid massive disruptions of service, especially when those disruptions occur in the lead-up to an election, which is expected in spring 2015. Why would the Harper government take on such a challenge now?
Partly because they must. The long-term balancing of the books requires wage restraint in the federal payroll. That requires taking a hard line with the unions and sticking to it.
But also, one suspects, the Tories will welcome this fight. It allows them to be Conservatives again: taking on the unions, battling for the little guy. (Conservatives see no contradiction between the two.) Of course, such gambles can backfire, with the public voting for a quieter political alternative. If the Tories sense that danger, they may well back off.
But a major confrontation with the public service would strengthen the allegiance of the base, while also possibly strengthening support among undecided who worry about their own jobs and chafe at the financial security of the unionized bureaucracy.
Progressives will respond that the goal should be to increase the wealth and economic security of the middle class working in the private sector, rather than scaling back the wages and benefits of those working in the public sector.
One suspects that's a debate Stephen Harper would be willing to fight an election over. Even if the public servants are on strike. Or maybe especially if they are.
John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.