Deep in the rust belt of southwestern Ontario – once the industrial heartland of the nation – folks are hurting. A lot of the good jobs are gone. People who once made $30 an hour have to settle for $18, if they can find it. Their kids are moving away. Over the past decade, Ontario's industrial decline has turned it from the engine of Confederation into a basket case.
But not everyone is hurting. If you're a cop, a firefighter or a teacher in Ontario's rust belt, you've got it made.
The union for the Ontario Provincial Police – the second-largest police force in Canada, after the RCMP – wants to keep it that way. Its members have waded into politics with an unprecedented attack ad against Tim Hudak and his provincial Conservatives, warning that a Tory election victory would shred police bargaining rights and endanger public safety.
Such scare tactics are nothing new. Toronto's firefighters union is notorious for warning that children could be incinerated in their beds if the city dares to cut a single fire truck. But to this point, the police union has stayed out of politics. That's good. The police should be above politics – shouldn't they?
"That is naive," declared Jim Christie, head of the OPP Association, in an interview with Newstalk 1010 radio. In Mr. Christie's view, the police have the same right to lobby as teachers and pipefitters. Mr. Hudak's positions on arbitration, public-sector pensions and wage freezes "are unacceptable to our members who put their lives on the line for their communities every day," he added in a statement.
The OPP, which serves hundreds of smaller communities throughout Ontario, is among the best-paid police forces in the world. Its pay scale sets the standard for police across the province. Many of its 7,400 officers pull in six figures a year, serving communities where the median wage doesn't even come close to that. Mr. Christie is particularly concerned that Mr. Hudak might go after the force's generous defined-benefit pension plan, one that the vast majority of private-sector workers can only dream of.
I have nothing against cops. They deserve a decent living. But the collective bargaining process has been stacked against the public for many years. That didn't matter when Ontario was booming, but it does now. And people are no longer so sympathetic to the plight of unionized employees who enjoy far better pay, pensions and security than they do – and whose salaries they pay.
The public-sector unions seem oblivious to these new realities. According to Mr. Christie, our cops deserve everything they've got and more. Why? Because their jobs are difficult and dangerous. At this point in the radio interview, he utters the magic words "child exploitation," as an example of the crucial work they do. You know that whenever a union leader brings up threats to children, reason and logic are not on his side.
Ontario's decline is often described as some sort of natural disaster, inflicted by vast global forces that are beyond the province's control. This is only partly true. The other part is the self-inflicted wounds of policy stupidity. The provincial Liberals launched a ruinous green energy policy that pushed Ontario's electricity rates (an important factor in industrial competitiveness) from the lowest in North America to among the highest. Meantime, the province and municipalities kept jacking up the salaries of public workers as if nothing had changed.
But simple common sense tells you that when Grade 3 teachers make $90,000 a year and firefighters make $100,000 for what's essentially a part-time job – with guaranteed pensions for life – something's gotta give.
"We are the OPP, and we're here for you," says the OPP union's new ad. Translation: Don't touch our benefits, or else.