- Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity ed. by Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage
Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, eds. Halifax: Fernwood, 2013
159 pp., CAD $30.00 (paper)
This book is a fine addition to Fernwood Press's Labour in Canada series, which provides accessible, compact analyses of labor market and union trends. The editors, Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, argue that public-sector unions deserve special consideration because, as public institutions, they are well positioned to challenge neoliberal austerity politics. In Canada, one out of every five working people is employed in the public sector, in which the editors and contributors include "para-public organizations like hospitals, schools, universities and Crown corporations" (10). Union density is high, with about 70 percent of public-sector workers belonging to unions, as opposed to 15.9 percent in the private sector. Although the members of public-sector unions implement state policies that have as their goal the reproduction and expansion of capitalism, they also deliver programs and services that embody the "social rights" of the welfare state, and in so doing they often champion the aspirations of a broader public.
The sheer size of public-sector unions and their relationship with the public should make them a force to reckon with in the fight against austerity. Essays in this collection address what has limited public-sector unions in the past. Bryan Evans, for example, illustrates the contradictions public-sector unions have faced in dealing with employers who are legislators with the power to suspend collective bargaining rights and who are insulated from the market forces that often limit the ability of private-sector employers to endure job actions. Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz examine the state's constant use of its legislative power since the mid-1970s to institutionalize the "permanent exceptionalism" of union rights in the public sector. Savage and Charles Smith demonstrate that public-sector union politics have been limited by the unions' desire to appear neutral in party politics and by the lack of significant alternatives to neoliberalism in the platforms of most major political parties either provincially or federally. Other essays address the contradiction of work and labor organization in the public sector in the cases of nonprofit social services, teaching, and professionals such as academic staff at universities.
While it is clear that public-sector unions have considerable capacity for mobilization, the nature of such mobilization and its prospects for success must be measured against what the essay contributors understand to be labor organizations' real adversary: the particular politics of austerity or capitalism more generally. At times, the politics of austerity is represented largely as an unraveling of what Bryan Evans refers to as the "golden age of Keynesianism" (21): the post-1945 expansion of welfare capitalism and industrial legality. This "golden age" lasted for three decades at most, and it was likely much less of an idyll for workers in the private sector, especially for those working in natural-resource extraction or in the private service sector. Rather than conceptualizing austerity as the end of an idealized phase of capitalism, it would be better to think about Keynesianism and neoliberalism as related capitalist moments. Panitch and Swartz point [End Page 147] out that neoliberalism in Canada during the 1980s manifested the intensification of capital mobility, free trade, and the ascendancy of finance capital. More important, capitalist development had fostered "the spread of commodification into every aspect of social life" (41). The implication is that we now identify ourselves mostly by our ability to consume, but that ability has been undermined by worsening employment in the private sector, a condition that divides working people. As Panitch and Swartz put it, "today, unionized workers who have reasonable wages or benefits are often objects of resentment, which makes defending past gains more difficult" (44). The taxes that allow the public sector to work may be perceived as siphoning income from people working in the private sector, thereby further eroding their ability to consume. Private-sector workers may feel that public-sector union members should be restrained by the politics of austerity.
How may public...