Canada’s looming battle over labour

With contracts for half a million public sector workers to be negotiated this year, things could get very ugly

Will it happen here?

Mark Blinch/Reuters

The Occupy movement, globally ubiquitous and proudly obtrusive, is remembered as one of the top news stories of 2011. In reality, the effort by various species of crank to take over public parks probably wasn’t even the most important “people occupying stuff” news item of the year, at least in North America. That honour rightly belongs to the February swarming of the Wisconsin legislature by up to 100,000 protesters dedicated to stopping Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill.” The new Republican governor, hoping to balance the state budget without reversing tax cuts of the past decade, struck at the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers, taking away their right to negotiate benefits and capping pay increases at the inflation rate.

The result was a ferocious multi-theatre battle over the value of public sector unions. It raged all year from the steps of the Capitol building in Madison to the state Supreme Court, the schools and universities, and even Wisconsin’s prisons, where guards threatened a wildcat strike and Walker countered by contemplating the use of the National Guard for replacement manpower. In August the state set a record for the largest number of recall elections held simultaneously in the U.S., as six Republicans and three Democrats in the state Senate were caught in the crossfire. (All but two Republicans survived.)

One wonders why this sort of massive fundamental confrontation over public sector unions—a type of confrontation that is all but perpetual in the United Kingdom—has been absent from Canada. It is not as though Canadian governments have failed to present pretexts for warfare. For 30 years the federal government has intervened in labour disputes only occasionally, but in 2011 Labour Minister Lisa Raitt went on a tear, threatening Air Canada customer-service staff with back-to-work legislation in June, pushing a Canada Post lockout of CUPW workers to binding arbitration by statute, and pre-empting Air Canada-CUPE negotiations in October.

Provincial governments, meanwhile, have been using “essential services” designations to cut off organized labour’s weapon of last resort. Almost immediately after it was voted into power in late 2007, Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government passed legislation forcing public sector workers to negotiate “essential” service levels in their contracts and to maintain those levels in the event of a strike. Manitoba’s NDP government quietly did the same to hospital and personal care home workers in May 2011. Even Ontario’s Liberals stepped away from a legacy of union-friendliness to ban strikes by Toronto Transit Commission workers in March.

In December, the Conference Board of Canada’s annual labour-relations outlook noted that 2012 bears significant potential for ugliness. After almost a decade in which public sector wage increases annually outpaced those in the private sector, government workers fell behind in 2010 and 2011. Yet austerity remains the fiscal rule almost everywhere. In 2012, almost a half-million public sector workers across the country will enter contract negotiations with cash-strapped treasurers. Those sending representatives to the table include the 167,000-strong provincial public services of six provinces (Ontario, B.C., Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia); 140,000 health care workers in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Manitoba; 36,000 Toronto District School Board employees; the Canada Revenue Agency’s workforce of 32,000; and thousands more on the payrolls of institutions like Ontario Power Generation, the University of Alberta, and the City of Montreal.

British Columbia, with its relatively militant public sector unions, seems like a natural flashpoint. David Camfield, a University of Manitoba labour studies professor, points out that B.C. is very nearly the only place where illegal “sympathy strikes” have surfaced in an era of neo-liberalism. CUPE members in B.C. walked out in solidarity with Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) strikers in 2004, and when the B.C. Teachers’ Federation defied an essential services law in 2005 and walked out, non-teaching employees under CUPE auspices supported their picket lines, organized illegal walkouts and rallies of their own.

“To understand 2012, you have to recall that the B.C. government imposed a two-year ‘net-zero’ bargaining mandate in 2010 that froze compensation costs,” says Bonnie Pearson, secretary-business manager for the HEU, when asked about the prospects for labour peace. “That was a set zero: any compensation adjustments had to come from other savings, which only a couple of employee classifications succeeded in finding. We’re coming out of two years of zeroes with economic expectations and, in particular, working conditions issues as well.”

The end of the net-zero period has unions licking their chops at an awkward time for B.C., which must repay $1.6 billion it received from Ottawa before the HST debacle. In jurisdictions where the treasury is more buoyant, the talk is less tough. Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Rosalee Longmore says of the Saskatchewan Party regime that, “We have had a fairly good working relationship with this government.” For nurses, the bitter pill of the 2008 essential services law was sweetened by a burst of new hiring that saw the Wall government hire 800 new nurses. Longmore is optimistic the give-and-take spirit will continue in 2012. “Everywhere you look, labour faces different decisions. In New Brunswick they’re laying off nurses while we’re still hiring.”

What’s interesting is that this stick-to-your-knitting approach dominates at a time when deeper questions about public sector unionism are coming to the fore. Paradoxically, this is something that labour militants like Camfield and arch-conservatives can probably agree on. Camfield notes that deficit reduction can serve as a smokescreen for future privatization moves. “Governments and many in the media have painted unionized public sector workers as ‘fat cats’ who don’t deserve their past gains through collective bargaining,” he adds. “A real challenge for public sector unions is to make the case that other workers should support their defence of jobs with better pay, benefits and job security on the grounds that 1) there aren’t enough such jobs and 2) workers who don’t have such jobs don’t benefit when the minority of workers who do have them are forced to give up past gains.”

The natural reply from the other side, of course, is: “But they are fat cats.” There is endless quibbling over the “wage gap” between public sector and private sector workers. CUPE, in a December study, acknowledged that public sector pay was on average slightly (0.5 per cent) higher for comparable jobs. Business groups argue that the gap is even greater. But the CUPE figure leaves out the big issue: pensions. The median retirement age in Canada is now 62 for the overall labour force but still just 59 for public sector workers.

Last month, the C.D. Howe Institute warned that the lucrative defined-benefit pensions of federal employees, now all but extinct in the private economy, represent a $146-billion unfunded liability even according to the numbers in the Public Accounts of Canada. Using “fair value” accounting with realistic asset yields, the Institute said the figure is more like $227 billion. Factor in the total for the defined-benefit pensions of provincial public sector employees—teachers, nurses, civil servants—and you have a 12-digit financial promise that must either be broken by governments or covered by taxpayers.

The battle of public sector unions for relevance and legitimacy is a battle between this zero-sum perspective and the union view, which sees public sector pensions, benefits, and job security as setting a standard for fellow toilers outside government. This is precisely the quarrel that continues to be conducted in Wisconsin, on a scale and with a seething rancour no one could have anticipated even in the heartland of American socialism. Is the world divided into workers and bosses? Or taxpayers and tax harvesters?




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Canada’s looming battle over labour

  1. Perhaps the pensions of elected officials could be diverted to help fund the liability negotiated by them and passed on to future governments unfunded?

    It does seem the only honourable thing to do after all. Perhaps it would provide insight to the elected officials that committed this foul deed and some reality therapy for those currently holding office.

    After all a public pension, is a public pension is a public pension…

  2. My favourite myth is “high paid workers put money in the community”.  I would rather keep it in my own pocket to spend!
     
    BC Liquor Store employee:  $23 wages + $8 benefits = $31/hr.
         – job desctiption:  cashier, stock shelves, inventory, handle returns
         – attitude:  you are bothering me, it’s not in my job description; average age 35-65
         – public availability: most closed Sun., Stat. Holidays, 9 am-7 pm, few till 11 pm Mon-Sat. 
     
    Private Liquor Outlet employee:  (the one I use) $16 wages + no benefits + tips(?) + free pub food
         – job desctiption:  cashier, stock shelves, inventory, handle returns, sell other merchandise
         – attitude:  hi, how are you – have a great day  SMILE;  average age 19-25
         – public availability: 10 am - 11 pm Mon. thru Sun., noon – 6 pm Stat. Holidays  
     

    • Yes leo, even at $23 an hour you cannot raise a family in Vancouver. 
      May be the employees at the private liquor store should join a union. How many jobs do they have to hold to make a living, 2 or 3? 

      • That is evidently true because people of typical childbearing age aren’t working at the Private Liquor Outlet, according to Le_o. In other words, rather than deciding NOT to have families, or to raise families in poverty, they have left the Private Liquor store for higher paying jobs that presumably require a higher level of skill or attention (either acquired at P.L.O. or through outside training).

        In the meantime, when a 25 year old leaves the P.L.O. for greener pastures, that opens up a job for a young, less trained employee who needs a job and is capable of cashiering, stocking shelves, inventory, handling returns and selling other merchandise. Say, a University student maybe. Or a drummer in a garage band. Either way.

        If the Private Liquor Outlet unionizes and succeeds in raising wages and holding onto lifers, where are University students and drummers going to work? Or is what you’re really calling for a raise in minimum wage to something above $23 an hour?

        • Wow. It’s great that these higher paying jobs magically exist in your world.  But if we go by Le_o’s logic, they shouldn’t, because he enjoys keeping his money in his own pocket, and companies don’t raise wages if they don’t have to, and if they don’t have to compete with higher-wage union positions, then they can keep their wages quite low.. especially given our constant unemployment rate.

          • The highest paying job in BC is $23 plus benefits? This IS cause for concern.

          • “companies don’t raise wages if they don’t have to, and if they don’t have to compete with higher-wage union positions, then they can keep their wages quite low.”

            This is about public sector workers who were to be paid less than private because of getting benefits and job security.  Private companies pay according to their econimic cycle which public sector workers are sheltered from.

          • Yes, it’s quite clear that Thwim and co. have no idea how wages are set in the real world. They seem to think that the ability to stock shelves is some sort of specialization that private companies are prepared to get into a bidding war over rather than just train some new guy to do the job.

            It’s a sad reality of that line of work but I don’t have any real sympathy for low wages in a job that requires no real education or training (and no student debts plus years of lost earnings potential). Right now, there are plenty of Science and Engineering PhDs plugging away in academic labs as post-docs earning ~40K a year. That’s 8+ years of university and tuition and earning less than $20/hr. Sure, their career earnings have a potential upside in the future but I still thinks its funny that we value a public liquor store employee more than a science PhD.

      • Maybe the point is don’t grow up to work at a liquor store for life because you won’t be able to afford to raise a family. Business is not charity. You don’t like it then move to Europe. I heard they like to spend money on people who don’t want to work. 

        The point made by Leo is a great example of disparity between the private and public sectors. This money they are paid is not the governments money. Its mine! Its yours! The governments job is to make sure it is spent efficiently and appropriately. Not to run a charity program for high school drop outs! 

        Vancouver is a very expensive city. Maybe you should move. 

      • Maybe the point is don’t grow up to work at a liquor store for life because you won’t be able to afford to raise a family. Business is not charity. You don’t like it then move to Europe. I heard they like to spend money on people who don’t want to work. 

        The point made by Leo is a great example of disparity between the private and public sectors. This money they are paid is not the governments money. Its mine! Its yours! The governments job is to make sure it is spent efficiently and appropriately. Not to run a charity program for high school drop outs! 

        Vancouver is a very expensive city. Maybe you should move. 

      • Maybe the point is don’t grow up to work at a liquor store for life because you won’t be able to afford to raise a family. Business is not charity. You don’t like it then move to Europe. I heard they like to spend money on people who don’t want to work. 

        The point made by Leo is a great example of disparity between the private and public sectors. This money they are paid is not the governments money. Its mine! Its yours! The governments job is to make sure it is spent efficiently and appropriately. Not to run a charity program for high school drop outs! 

        Vancouver is a very expensive city. Maybe you should move. 

      • Maybe the point is don’t grow up to work at a liquor store for life because you won’t be able to afford to raise a family. Business is not charity. You don’t like it then move to Europe. I heard they like to spend money on people who don’t want to work. 

        The point made by Leo is a great example of disparity between the private and public sectors. This money they are paid is not the governments money. Its mine! Its yours! The governments job is to make sure it is spent efficiently and appropriately. Not to run a charity program for high school drop outs! 

        Vancouver is a very expensive city. Maybe you should move. 

    • The difference being that come retirement, the BC Liquor store employee has his pension and CPP to live off of, has probably been able to make the payments on a small home, and may even have some retirement savings. The PLO employee has been renting, has no pension, no savings, and thus ends up relying on welfare and subsidized housing.

      But that’s okay, right? After all, you don’t have to pay for that..

      .. your kids do.

      • I think you may have mistaken me for some sort of Randian fundamentalist when in fact I support public healthcare and education (for example) as well as public bargaining in those sectors. Increases to welfare and subsidized housing are also probably called for.

        Where we differ is that you’ve chosen to take your stand on behalf of liquor store employees whereas as I wonder why they’re entitled to special government subsidies at the expense of the local 7/11 employee who possesses the same skill set.

        It seems to me that either you should be advocating that EVERYONE is entitled to $31/hour or else concede that low income jobs serve a niche in our society both on behalf of consumers (including liquor store and 7/11 employees, who buy booze and magazines like the rest of us) AND ON BEHALF of low-skilled workers, a great deal of whom (like the 20 – 25 year old set) aren’t raising a family.

        Summary: Liquor store workers? Really?

        • What I’m arguing is everyone is entitled to a livable wage for their labour, and that ragging on unions for being overpayed isn’t going to get us there when the reality is that most people are underpaid and corporations would prefer if we were even moreso.

      • The point is that the jobs the BC Liqour employees do are not worth $31/hr. – according to the market they are more like $15-16/hr with perks like tips or free meals.

        It is not OK with me to subsidize the BC Liquor store employees with my tax dollars.

        The young ladies that staff my favourite PLO are 1) university students, usually get time to work on their home work when things are slow; 2) Moms that like the time-frame of the shift; 3)  Second job for a couple that are saving for a big item (I actually did that to save for the down payment for my mortgage years ago)

        • No. You’d rather subisidize them with your kids dollars.  The reason the “market” prices them so little is because people like you continually fight against unions that try to get their members livable wages.

          • You haven’t demonstrated that ex Private Liquor Store employees are worse off than current Public Liquor Store employees. So let me ask you, when they leave the private liquor store, where do they go? Do you think they’re quitting to get in on that sweet welfare action?

            Why aren’t you concerned that my kids are going to have to pay to subsidize public liquor store employees?

            And what have you got against CPP? Why shouldn’t my kids pay for it, as I do, and my parents did before me?

          • Oh they’ll pay for it. They just won’t be seeing anything from it. The estimates they’re using for returns from CPP are simply not attainable.

          • Thwim—Why don`t we just pay the government liquor store employee 16 dollars an hour and top it up with another 15 dollars an hour and call it welfare.

            You seem to think that the money pot that we use to overpay the public employee and then over-pension them with, is a different pot than the one that you say we will have to pay in welfare to the private sector employee.

             It is all the same money pot. the only way public sector employees add to that pot is through a percentage of their wages being clawed back for income tax, pension premiums EI, etc.

          • Thwim, to recap: My kids should feel grateful to pay a premium for liquor while receiving surly service at inconvenient hours for the glory of the liquor store worker who, through her connections, has obtained a low-skilled job at above market wages while said kids toil for less in the private sector. This should be a relief to them because, according to your analysis, liquor store workers are dead-enders who have no hope of graduating to a higher paying job with benefits, therefor rendering them vulnerable to the coming CPP apocalypse. Of course, rather than either increasing CPP benefits, or cutting taxes and encouraging private retirement savings (you choose), your solution is to grant elite wages to a small and arbitrary set of low-skilled workers to keep THEM off the welfare rolls.

            Alternatively, maybe my kids (owing to their superior upbringing) don’t work minimum wage jobs like their old man did and instead they’re scooped up by the BC Liquor Board who can afford to lure them away from other higher paying employers. This benefits society as a whole because BCers get to have their liquor bagged and cashiered by my talented and charming daughters whose elite skills would only be wasted in nasty corporations or in public classrooms or hospitals.

            This has been a most instructive thread.

    • And yet the BC Liquor Store has the best prices…pretty much without exception.  Private stores can match, just not undercut the non-private prices.  How exactly is this so bad for the community?  Employees with cash in their pockets and customers with a cheaper bottle of booze…it’s a utopian masterwork from where I sit.  And as a pre-emptive, please provide an example of better prices at a private seller.

      • That’s because the government controls the liquor distribution branch – every private store has to buy through them.  The private stores are in effect subsidizing the wages of the government liquor store workers.  Private stores can’t compete on price with the government stores due to the purchasing arrangement, so they have to make up for the difference with better hours, better service, and/or better selection. It’s interesting that our supposedly liberal country insists on restricting beer & wine sales to highly regulated stores, whereas in many parts of the socially conservative US you can pick up wine at your grocery store.

        • Washington State recently voted to end the State controlled liquor outlets.

          “Washington State consumers, for instance, pay an estimated $26.03 in taxes (payments to government) per gallon of liquor, compared to $3.30 in California where private liquor sales are permitted. This is in addition to the liquor price itself.”

          http://www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/27764.html

          • The Alberta government got out of the liquor store business when things privitized.  Now it is the distributor.  It sell the booze to the private stores.  I can’t understand how people are okay with the BC govt. competing with private businesses….and paying their employees twice the money.  Maybe they should give the private businesses a cut on the prices so they could pay their employees better.

          • And it pretty well sucks to buy alcohol at most liquor stores in Alberta. The wine selection is abysmal. I guess I console myself with the fact that I’ve stopped drinking (for the time being).

    • How does it work in BC?  Does the government sell the booze to the private sector?  Is that how they can afford to pay higher wages and still be competitive with pricing?

  3. For 25 years what is good for the economy has solely been a benefit to corporations, their top executives and the financial sector.25 years ago it was possible to raise a family, buy a house, have long term security on a single salary, working 40 hours a week. What is good for the economy as been practiced  has robbed the middle class. The tax cuts mainly benefited the upper income tax payers. The multitude of fees for service and their steady increase hurts mostly low income earners, since the vast different percentage of income they consume. Who benefits from zero % interest rates. Savers, pensioners? I see credit card rates still in the stratosphere.
    As is statistically proven most income is generated by the top 1 %, on further more a much larger share by the top 0.1 %.Now it is time to reverse this trend. Pay a living wage for work performed. At least a savings interest rate that is higher than the rate of inflation. And include the cost of housing into the inflation rate.

    • No Hans the tax cuts benefited the middle class. Demonizing ‘Big corporations’ is a little cliche. You sound like an NDP activist from the 80′s. Wages have increased for the last 25 years. What’s different? Well back in the 80′s middle class working people had one used car, small house, clunker tv with 12 channels, donated furniture, one gift for christmas. Things have changed eh? Now we must have new furniture, (don’t worry, you don’t pay till 2014!), flat screen tv’s with 800 channels!, big house with granite countertops! ipods, ipads, cell phones, brand new 40 grand cars! (but hey its 0% interest!) Christmas with Visa.
      Entitlement, envy, greed! Thats what has changed! In the 80′s guy driving the BMW was the man, he owned electronic stores and had 8 locations. Worked hard and everyone in the neighborhood looked up to him. Now that guy is the evil corporate bad guy who makes too much money. Its not fair! 
      Get a grip Hans, the only thing that has changed is our mindset. Socialism is great till you run out of other peoples money. Then you will be skipping along with Dimitris from Greece to the local foodbank wondering what happened!

      • The reason people want all the new toys is that they have been sold this way of life through advertising. They have been continually bombarded through every form of media to “do it now”; just what do you think has been responsible for continual economic growth? People using hand me downs?
         Now you are getting into 2nd generations of people living through the status sold them through advertising. If their parents live that way and advertising and peer groups support it, why would they be any different?

         The lessons of the dirty thirties have faded in the rearview and people are doing exactly what they’ve been trained to do – spend spend spend. Think of what fuels those high rates of return on your investments? Don’t be so eager to pedestal point; you can’t have it both ways.

      • How old are you – the 80′s was a time of tasteless consumption. 

    • I find this fascinating considering that middle class people live a higher standard of living now than ever.  My parents NEVER travelled.  Everyone lived in a 1000 square foot bungalow and had one car when I was a kid.  My siblings and I shared bikes and both my parents worked hard at their jobs…my mom was a school teacher and my dad a farmer.  They couldn’t afford to send us to university so we had to put ourselves through.   I look around me now and people have a lot of “stuff” and just want more.  They travel, they golf, they ski.  They live in big houses and have fancy cars.  Maybe they are in debt but they want it all. 

      • Your parent’s life sounds like my life now. I don’t have much use for stuff (except maybe guitars). I don’t complain about it though as I have a great life.

  4. Personally, I always find these discussions completely unhelpful.

    To start with, the sheer number of jobs included under the “public sector” label is absolutely astounding. It includes everything from RCMP Officers to Sewer workers to Federal Bureaucrats to Scientists working in the far north to Federal Park Rangers.

    Trying to have a serious conversation about “appropriate” pay and benefits with a definition this broad is utterly ridiculous.

    • It’s also lumping public sector pay regardless of locale economics. For example, it has been noted that a $23/hr job is beans in Vancouver. However, you would be very well off by comparison making $23 an hour doing the same job in Charlottetown. Housing and rental costs causing the largest discrepancy but you could be taxed more for working in Charlottetown inevitably.
      Still, if thoroughly examined there is undoubtedly some legitimate opportunities to leave certain roles to the private sector so that essential public roles could continue to be supported.

    • It’s also lumping public sector pay regardless of locale economics. For example, it has been noted that a $23/hr job is beans in Vancouver. However, you would be very well off by comparison making $23 an hour doing the same job in Charlottetown. Housing and rental costs causing the largest discrepancy but you could be taxed more for working in Charlottetown inevitably.
      Still, if thoroughly examined there is undoubtedly some legitimate opportunities to leave certain roles to the private sector so that essential public roles could continue to be supported.

    • I don’t know Phil.  You can compare jobs like an RN in Quebec with a liquor store employee in BC….$31.00/hr.(top wage) in Quebec for the nurse v. $23.00/h (starting wage) in  BC for the liquor store employee…does make you think…what does 4 years of education, approximately 10 years of experience, tons of responsibility, vast knowledge get you, much time spent up close and personal with body fluids….$8.00 extra an hour. 

      • That seems like a prime example of the incomparability I’m talking about.

        Do we look at the awesome responsibility the average RN has, and pay them on the basis of their value to society? Or is the fact that RNs don’t boost tax revenues but instead drain them an excuse to undercut them as we clearly have?

        Is cost of living a factor to be considered? Demand/supply? (Consider that a Tim Hortons employee in some place in Alberta make $30 or more an hour)

        Personally I think that the inherent value of an RN to society suggests we underpay them considerably, and that it really has little to do with what a liquor store employee gets paid one way or another, because so many of the considerations at play don’t align for these two groups.

  5. It seems from a quick scan of the comments that nobody has wondered why Colby is writing about the “the top news stories of 2012″ in January of 2012. Has the rest of the year been cancelled? Or is this another example of the decline of editing in current journalism?

    I noticed this date in the dead-tree version of Maclean’s, and came here just to see if had been corrected. Maybe it’s all part of a plot by Colby to increase the hits on his online version. If so, it worked at least once.

    • He is up against cute, tiny, pet pigs, lol

    • It’s the ongoing threat from that article on wheat. 

  6. I just skip the reading. :-P Anyway im only making 10.50/hr. It`s not under any union. I have a family. Its hard, i just go pay check to pay check. Atleast your still making more. So i guess stop spending too much that you dont really need.:-P. Or stop complaining i guess. Dontc omplain you still have a job. My company is not doing well where i work, might shut down soon. :’( Blah blah i got the point every one isa complainer compare where i grew up, lots of them are starving and dying. And you still want more!, i guess ahhh forget it…ill propably do the same.:-P

  7. The public policy problem is not wages, it’s value for money.  

    In the private sector, CUPE-level salaries will hire a worker who is ambitious, hard-working, on the ball, etc., both by nature and because they want to keep the good salary.  

    In the public sector, you have the CUPE salary **plus** incredible job security.  Nobody can tell you to work overtime for free.  Nobody can threaten you with dismissal for poor job performance.  You can be insanely rude to the public if you choose to be and there are virtually no consequences (nothing like instant firing, at least).  So while I’m not against CUPE-level salaries for public employees per se — I’m sure they help to boost wages, maintain the middle class, etc. — I think it’s scandalous that we thereby ruin both the quality of public services and the reputation of government.  

    Anybody who believes that government can and should be a force for tremendous good in the world has to be against what CUPE does to government.  

  8. It’s simple – the government should only be involved in what the public deems as an essential service. Then if the government is in it as an essential service, then there is no real competition, therefore the idea of a negotiated settlement is absurd as it is not within a competitive arena – there are no competitors (so the strikers don’t have to consider that if their demands are too rich that the company will be uncompetitive and they could all lose their jobs to the competition). So if the government is providing an essential service, there should be no ‘negotiated’ settlements, but rather a compensation (including pensions) calculation based on a survey of private sector jobs based on comparable job elements, responsibilities, education/training requirements, etc.

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