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The Government Trough
Allow me to tell you a little story about this week's column.

Last summer, while I was huddled in a hotel room for three days, I wrote seventeen columns, so that I would have them on hand to send in when I didn't have time to write a new one. And that's what I did, all summer: one by one I sent in a new column.

Then I got down to just four remaining; four that I wasn't entirely sure were ready to go. They were kind of inflammatory, more so than I would have liked, and so I wrote new ones instead. They just sat there, on my hard drive, waiting.

Waiting for the day that I completely forgot to write and send in a column (which never happens) and my editor called me at 5:30 saying, "I need it right now!". So I sent in one of those inflammatory ones, without really having time to edit it.

And now I'm partially regretting it. So here's my column for this week, I say biting my nails. Be nice to me if you hate it. Thank you.

A few months ago, Greek government workers, facing layoffs and pay cuts, took to the streets to protest the government’s insistence that they work until they were 63 before being eligible for retirement, instead of retiring at 61 as they do now. Germany, which has bailed Greece out, already works until 67. I guess Greek public sector workers thought Germans should keep working longer so Greeks could keep retiring earlier. No wonder everyday Europeans are angry.

Over the next five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the main topic of citizen anger here in North America becomes targeted towards government workers’ pensions and unions, too.

Government workers can give us all kinds of reasons why they’re not paid enough, and why the pensions are deserved. But here’s the thing: those in the private sector don’t have the kind of pensions government employees do. And in general, we work longer hours. We don’t have job security. And most of us don’t have unions.

If nearly a quarter of Canadians work for the government, and even more are collecting government pensions, how are we ever going to stop the gravy train? And yet the rest of us have to work harder to support the pensions and wages and vacations and expense accounts that these workers have. At some point, something’s got to break, as it already has in California and in Greece.

This wasn’t always such a glaring discrepancy. Decades ago many private sector workers were also unionized, and had robust pensions and job security, too. That’s not so in our current economy. Pensions have been slashed and unions have folded, so that today while 72% of government workers are unionized, only 17% of private sector workers are.

Now there are four segments of government workers that I do not begrudge pensions or pay to at all, and that would be the military, the police, fire fighters, and prison guards. They willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. We should be taking care of such people.

But the Inter-Governmental Liaison for Human Resources in some obscure ministry? Or how about a Manager of Futuring and Innovation Based Strategies? I’m not nearly as sympathetic.

At some point Canada is going to have to come to terms with the fact that largesse in the public sphere is simply not fair or right. Government workers may argue they are “worth” the money, but if private sector workers aren’t making comparable salaries, or are working far longer hours for the money they do take home, then that argument is moot. You are only worth what the market pays; if the market won’t pay it in the private sector, then you’re not worth that in the public, either.

No society is healthy when the government exists simply to grow the government. The government should exist to serve the rest of us; not to serve the interests of the lucky few who get those jobs. I know those who work for the government will likely hate this column, but I’m willing to bet that most who do not work for the government completely agree with me, even if they don’t talk about it at parties.

This is the real class warfare that’s going on in Canada, and in the rest of the Western world, and over the next decade as economies constrict and go through major transition, it’s only going to become more of an issue. It’s not the haves and the have nots; it’s the have government jobs and don’t have government jobs. It’s time for government to reflect the people, not to feed off of the people. I hope those “best and brightest” of politicians are listening.

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At 9:07 AM , Blogger Megan said…

Didn't seem inflammatory to me; but probably because I completely agree with you :). It sends up a host of red flags when I read or hear terms like "the rich" or "the poor" -- like they are two different species with a barrier between them that can't be breached. In reality, "rich" and "poor" are dynamic, not static classes. I don't know about Canada, but in the United States the majority of millionaires were not born "rich" but rather grew up lower or middle class. And I think we're all quite aware that the rich can very easily become the poor.

You're right on in pointing out that the real division is public versus private. Especially since it is nigh impossible to fire most public employees.


At 9:55 AM , Blogger Tessa said…

I'm not a gov't employee and I tend to completely agree with you too. I thought it was very well written and hopefully gives people something to think about. I appreciate what you said about "You are only worth what the market pays; if the market won’t pay it in the private sector, then you’re not worth that in the public, either." I think that's probably one of my favorite lines from anything I've read in a long time.

Hubby and I have this conversation all the time actually and it's nice to see that there are some other common sense people out there too :)


At 10:09 AM , Blogger A'ine said…

My husband works in the high-tech sector...'nuff said! He has had 2 lay-offs, one of which was 8 months long. He has never worked for the government, knows nothing of "job security," gold-plated pensions and sick-leave, and if he wants French-language training in his current job, he has to pay for it himself. He also paid mostly out of his own pocket to get his CISSP designation. We live in Ottawa...where almost every other person works for the government in some way or another.
He gets so frustrated when he hears of government workers going on strike for "guaranteed job security" and for "wage increases in keeping with the rate of inflation/cost of living." I don't mean to sound snarky, but it's hard to not think that a lot of these folks don't understand how "the great unwashed" live, work, and support their families from day to day. No one in high-tech has job security. No on in high-tech gets wage increases in keeping with the rate of inflation/cost of living. Even though my husband currently works at a stable company, he knows that tomorrow he could go in and have an HR person waiting to tell him he's laid off & escort him out. He's always keeping his CV up to date, and keeping an eye on what jobs are available so he can hit the ground running if need be. He networks constantly and keeps in touch with friends & colleagues in other companies, so he has inroads if he gets the dreaded news again.
So, all that to say, Sheila, I agree with your post. You've basically said out loud what a lot of the rest of us have been thinking. Good on ya!


At 11:17 AM , Blogger Stacy said…

I agree, and I'm in the US. The only possible addition I would make to your list of people who "deserve" their pensions and such would be teachers, who are also government employees (at least in the US).


At 11:43 AM , Anonymous Destiny said…

I completely agree with everything you wrote. I live in the U.S. and it resonates here too. My husband and I have been living on $600 a month for a few months now, so to hear others complain is very frustrating. I also try not to complain, because I know the reality IS that we are doing pretty well in comparison to over half of the world population. We rarely recognize ourselves as spoiled, but we are. We've come to expect so much as a standard of living, and feel so entitled. Between the U.S. and Canada, simply being born here, you hit the jackpot!


At 5:58 PM , Blogger Some Suburban Mom said…

I'm with ya, sister. I'm also in the US and I have a big problem with big government. One of my favorite quotes about government is from Ronald Reagan (love him or hate him, he was FUNNY.) "Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end, and no sense of responsibility at the other."

What bothers me most, I think, is the sense of entitlement...I "deserve" XYZ, or I'm "worth" you say, you're "worth" what the market will pay you. No one has the right to hold others hostage to demand higher pay, early retirement or a higher pension.

I don't think what you wrote was inflammatory. I tend to think that anyone who might get upset by it, is upset because maybe it's hitting close to home? I don't think it's the government's job to provide a living for people, or a pension, or those kinds of things. I believe it's the government's job to protect its citizens, and structure the country in such a way that people have the opportunity to pursue those things for themselves.

I enjoyed reading your post!


At 11:09 AM , Blogger Amy said…

I agree with you too!

Some might consider me biased since my husband is in the military and I have an older brother who is a police officer. However, even before I ever knew my husband or my brother became a police officer I always felt they deserved the pay and benefits more than other areas of government. I'm not a fan of big government, and for a nation that screams about obesity (I'm in the US) there is much less screaming about our morbidly obese government. Ugh.


At 3:32 PM , Blogger Deborah said…

My husband is an employee of the US federal government. I agree with the basic idea behind your post, but I would like to point out that there are exceptions other than those you listed (military, police, etc). For example, highly technical people (engineers, computer scientists, etc) often get paid *less* by the government than they could earn in the private sector--my husband is an example. Many of his former coworkers left the government and now make more money working for private companies. I'm not bellyaching about that; we've considered the tradeoffs and decided to stay where we are, but I wanted to point out that it isn't uniformly the case that government employees get paid more. Now, in those cases where they do get paid significantly more than those doing similar work in the private sector, I fully agree with you! But I often find that people hear that I'm the wife of a government employee and lump my family in with those who "don't deserve" their income--people don't understand that not all government employees are the same. Some of them are opposed to the very idea of government employee unions, big government (my husband works in an area where the government has a constitutionally-mandated role), and swollen salaries for public employees. I can see where this article could be inflammatory, if I chose to take it personally, but the reality of the situation is that I wouldn't be reading your blog if I didn't agree with you in many areas, including the principles behind this one.


At 3:56 PM , Blogger Katy-Anne said…

My husband works for the government and we are sick of hearing people who work in the private sector complaining about their pay which is usually at least double what ours is.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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