An economic children's story

The other day I was treated to a modern fairy tale about how the Big Bad Capitalists were gobbling up Little Red Unionized Worker in the America's formerly happy Dairyland of Wisconsin. I suppose these things frighten impressionable children. But it just left me baffled.

The story, told by the CAW's Jim Stanford during a debate on BNN, said that long, long ago when people were progressive and deficits had not been invented, governments bestowed upon the downtrodden masses the right to collective bargaining. And there was much rejoicing and prosperity reigned. But unionization worked so well the economy stagnated and real wages stopped rising and unionization declined except in the public sector and now there's an evil plot against them there too. Huh?

I know in fairy tales we're meant to accept flying carpets and talking trees and Keynesian economics. But here in the lands that we know, I cannot grasp how it can be asserted that anti-employee neo-liberal rich people have captured government and are using it to bash unions when unionization rates in the public sector are more than triple those in the private sector in Canada (75 per cent versus 19 per cent) and more than five times as high in the United States (36 per cent versus seven per cent).

What these numbers clearly show instead is that unions have captured government after being squeezed out of the private sector by their tendency to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. In government, unlike private business, you can hand someone else the bill. And while there may not really be ogres living in caves or trolls lurking under bridges, there certainly are activists, politicians and special interest groups working together to extract unearned benefits from the political process at the expense of those too young to vote or not yet born.

Personally I don't think even Rocky and Bullwinkle's old Fractured Fairy Tales could get voters smiling at a segment where the old business about capitalist hobgoblin mine and railroad and steel mill owners reducing the toiling masses to dirty bags of bones just for the cruel sport of it gets retold with public servants as the proletariat. Taxpayers tend not to react well to this kind of bedtime story for some reason.

Oh, I remember why: It's because taxes keep going up and services keep going down. Governments are in hock up to their eyeballs. And they may soothe us with tales of a happy-ever-after when deficits won't come calling and items that are "off budget" can't suddenly jump out and bite right through your wallet. But after they turn off our lights, they don't keep talking that way. It's not because they're mean. It's because even the most obtuse among them have to do the math eventually.

Those of you too old to be frightened by things that go bump in the night may recall that after his tax-funded trip to the Big Rock Candy Mountain went bad, former Ontario premier Bob Rae forced public sector workers to take unpaid days off and was bizarrely miscast as anti-union. Now it's current Premier Dalton McGuinty imposing pay freezes and insisting that future collective bargaining won't pay off the way it used to. But casting him as a neo-liberal troll just waiting to gobble up collective bargaining rights is about as convincing as having Little Red Riding Hood eat the wolf.

McGuinty isn't doing these things because he wants to. He's doing them because in Ontario, typically, compensation (wages, salaries and benefits) accounts for more than half of provincial program spending. And unless your treasury is well stocked with magic beans, you can't rein in runaway spending if you don't do something about big expenditure items that keep growing faster than inflation.

Wisconsin Democrats have run away from this reality, figuratively and literally, and hoping the big bad quorum won't find them. But grown-ups do not believe in this sort of stuff. Nor do they think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is the big bad wolf or, as some protesters' signs alleged, Hitler.

Nor are he and his colleagues the band of real-life Simon Legrees depicted by New York Congressman Charles Rangel who said, "Collective bargaining is something that is so close to slavery in terms of abolishing it. ..." Tell me about lamps and genies if you must. But don't try to convince me if William Wilberforce were among us today he would be trying to free bureaucrats. You just cannot kiss this frog of an argument and turn it into a handsome prince.

If you're wondering, the Big Bad Capitalist story went on that within governments, beleaguered but defiant unions bravely continue their battle for the wretched of the Earth like public servants and autoworkers in desperate need of protection from robber barons, whereas those working part time in fast food restaurants can ... hey, the rest of the pages are missing.

Oh well. It was a silly story anyway.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson