Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

Time for a wage index?

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From federal MLA pensions to provincial teaching wages to the growing cost of our municipal workers, a battle has been long-brewing between public servants and taxpayers over compensation. Things are about to get ugly, and in a way it's about time.

As someone eking out a modest living in the private sector, I find public sector wages and benefits a little offensive at times. Sour grapes? Absolutely. I'm not embarrassed to admit that I'm jealous as hell.

It's not just public sector wages, which are ostensibly high to keep up with the private sector but are often much higher than average. It's not just the myth that the public sector has to pay competitive salaries to get good people — I think a lot of us eking in the private sector would happily take a pay cut to get the kind of job security and benefits the public sector enjoys. The truth is that the average worker does not have a tenure system, union or job protection of any kind; most of us don't have pensions and benefits vary wildly from place to place.

It's really a question of what's fair — objectively and dispassionately fair. In recent years it's been the public sector determining what's fair for the public sector and sticking the rest of us with the cost. Time and time again we're held hostage because we can't do without the services that the public sector provides, and that we pay the public sector a lot of our good money to provide.

Municipalities comparing their salaries to other municipalities, rather than the prevailing wages in their cities and towns; teachers and doctors and nurses comparing compensation to other provinces instead of wages in the private sector — we've allowed for the creation of an endless feedback loop that ensures that wages always, always go up, regardless of what's happening with the economy or inflation: Worker A gets a raise because worker B got a raise, B gets another raise because Worker A got a raise, and so on until taxes go up or public services get cut. Through it all the public sector compensation system is completely insulated from the free market, where employment fluctuates and wages haven't kept up with the inflation for the past 30 years. The result is that the public sector is where all the good-paying jobs are these days, which, since it's funded by struggling taxpayers, seems a little ass-backwards.

Sure, public sector unions are more than happy to compare wages to the private sector when the times are good and it's in their benefit to do so. When times are tough, like they have been the past five years, they compare wages to other public sector workers. And it's never an honest, direct comparison that considers the entire package — benefits, pension payments, hours worked, holiday time and intangibles like job security and early retirement options that are completely unavailable to most of us.

Regardless whether you agree with me or not, or where you stand in this battle over wages, it's obvious that the current system isn't really working or fair to anybody. It's not based on anything real or objective, it's incredibly divisive and it's hurting both sides.

What's lacking is a real measure of how wages should be determined and increased in Canada, in B.C. and in Whistler. The Core Consumer Price Index is one measure that is quoted quite frequently, but it doesn't necessarily work for wages. Inflation actually varies from place to place — like in Vancouver, where real estate and rent has increased well above inflation, or Vancouver Island, where the price of things is distorted by ferry fees. It doesn't reflect taxes, which vary from province to province, or economies of scale enjoyed by people living in cities. It doesn't take into account employment figures or the way that people are spending their money — 10 years ago most people weren't blowing $1,200 to $1,500 a year on smart phones.

When unionized public sector employees went on strike in Vancouver in 2007, one of the reasons given was the high cost of housing in that city. In Whistler, we gave the same raise to employees in the same union, and then promptly gave the same raise to every single other non-unionized member of staff so it would be equitable to everyone — regardless of the fact that the Vancouver housing costs that prompted the strike in the first place aren't an issue here! The status quo makes no sense.

It's time to create and maintain a separate national wage index, which includes the value of benefit packages. Whistler should not be comparing wages to Vancouver, but to wages paid elsewhere in the resort — and wages in the resort should increase in step with average wages across B.C. and Canada. Teachers should be comparing their wages to private sector employees with similar education levels, factoring in benefits and the number of days they work in a year. Establishing base wages for professions and then tying those wages to an objective statistic is the only way to end this vicious cycle that we're in.

When the index goes up, then all of our wages should go up. When wages are stagnant, then we should all stagnate together — it's only fair.

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