What drives the public sector pay premium? Pay equity and reduced racial discrimination, for starters

Will Wisconsin’s war on public sector unions move north, as speculated in today’s Globe by Konrad Yakabuski?

It already has, in the case of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is driving ahead with his commitment to privatize garbage collection.

But why is public sector compensation ahead of pay rates for comparable private sector jobs? At least part of the reason, according to labour economist Andrew Jackson, is the existence of pay equity for women in the public sector. Another is the much smaller pay gap in the public sector between visible minority workers and their white workmates.

British Columbia, of course, has already had at least two rounds of the Wisconsin syndrome. In 1983, then Premier Bill Bennett brought in a “restraint” program that attacked a wide range of union conditions and social benefits, including human rights protection. The resulting general strike brought the province to a standstill and Bennett’s career never recovered, despite the concessions he made in the “Kelowna Accord” to end the strife.

Then there was Premier Gordon Campbell’s massive legislated 15 percent wage rollback targetting the Hospital Employees’ Union in 2002. Although Campbell’s bills purported to leave pay equity intact, the result was drastic wage cuts for tens of thousands of women workers they have yet to recover. Health care services formerly delivered by health authorities were contracted out.

The legislation triggered years of turmoil, including illegal strikes. The Supreme Court of Canada later ruled Campbell’s Bill 29 violated HEU members’ right to freedom of association under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So will Wisconsin come to BC? It may come down to what lessons incoming Premier Christy Clark has drawn from our own province’s history.