Wage Equality: Lessons from the public sector

By Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union

As a general rule, women get paid less than men do. It doesn’t matter how you measure it.
If you go by the average annual pay of all women in Ontario, women make 69 cents for every dollar men make. On an hourly basis, the average woman makes $3.44 less than the average man. That’s a 13 per cent penalty – just for being female.

This is not acceptable. We have to do better.
Fortunately, there are a couple of bright spots on the grey landscape of women’s wages. The brightest is unionization.

About 27 per cent of employees in Ontario are unionized, and here’s the good news for women: the average unionized woman makes ten per cent more per hour than the average nonunion man. That’s significant.

What is just as significant is where these union women are.
They’re in the public sector, mostly. Ontario’s public sector is 62 per cent female and 71 per cent unionized. That’s a higher unionization rate than the overall rate in Sweden. In the private sector, on the other hand, just 11.5 per cent of Ontario women are unionized. That’s lower than the overall rate in Alabama.

When it comes to unions, the public and private sectors in Ontario are like two different countries.
Private sector workers have taken a lot of hits over the last 30 years or so. They’ve been bashed around by global competition and laissez-faire economics. Freer trade, which was supposed to bring prosperity, has instead sapped our industrial power.

Unionization rates have fallen, and real wages have fallen with them.

Make no mistake: the public sector has faced its own challenges. The provincial government’s current “austerity” program, like others before it, is cutting public sector jobs and driving down wages. Even so, the unionization rate remains high. Why? Two reasons: working people like unions; and Ontarians want public services to stay public.

The people of Ontario have little appetite for privatization. They don’t trust the private sector to run our hospitals, schools, and courts. They see a strong role for direct government oversight in these areas and many others.

All of which is good for women’s wages, especially for those in lowerincome jobs. Through unionization, public sector women have succeeded in two key areas: collective bargaining; and enforcement of Ontario’s Pay Equity Act.

Given the state of women’s wages, it’s easy to forget that it’s against the law in this country to pay women less, but it is. Unfortunately, the Pay Equity Act is notoriously hard to enforce. It demands painstaking comparisons and complex calculations, and employers have been known to drag their heels. Negotiations can take years – or even decades.

Realistically, no individual has the time or the resources to enforce pay equity. The only workers who can achieve it are those who have a union. So the largely female and highly unionized public sector is where we, as a province, have made the most progress towards wage equality.

Policy-makers, take note.
There are voices out there today who are calling on governments to slash public sector wages even more than they already have. Groups like the Fraser Institute say that, in the name of equity between the public and private sectors, public sector wages must come down. What they don’t say is this: they want women’s wages to come down. In truth, they want to move away from equity, not towards it.

What Ontario needs now is a commitment from government to apply the lessons learned in the public sector to the private sector. We need to remove barriers to unionization in the private sector. Just as importantly, we need government support for enforcing pay equity in all workplaces, unionized or not.

Ontario has a long way to go to achieve wage equality, but one thing is for sure: pushing down public sector wages takes us in the wrong direction altogether – no matter how you measure it.