Liberal budget sets up battle with public sector unions
Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan speaks to reporters after the delivery of the 2012 Ontario budget in Toronto on Tuesday, March 27, 2012.
Published Tuesday, March 27, 2012 5:53PM EDT
If the Liberal minority government survives the vote on its latest budget, it will face a war with public sector unions after putting them on notice that they have to do their part to slay the deficit.
The budget unveiled Tuesday promises a balanced budget by 2017-18, and leans on more than one million government employees to help meet that target by agreeing to wage freezes and other concessions.
The document calls on three key groups, whose contracts expire in 2012, to accept "compensation agreements" that are in line with the new fiscal reality: teachers, doctors and Ontario Public Service Employees.
A briefing note accompanying the budget says that more than 50 cents of every dollar spent by the Ontario government is on wages for these groups of workers. And it's their concessions with which the Liberals intend to meet their deficit-reduction targets.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan told reporters Tuesday that "everybody needs to do their part" to get the government back to black, "because compensation is our single greatest cost and we can't carry out our plan to strengthen our economy and create jobs without addressing it.
"We need everybody to do their part to balance the budget."
Duncan went so far as to threaten to take "administrative and legislative measures" should employers and unions fail to reach deals in keeping with the government's "fiscal plan."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath objected to the government's stance, saying that it's through negotiations at the bargaining table that agreements are made, without threats.
"I'm quite concerned that you hold a respectful conversation with someone, while holding a gun to their head," she told reporters.
Teachers, doctors facing a freeze
According to the budget, teachers are being asked to accept a two-year wage freeze, as well as a freeze on banked sick days. They are also being asked to agree to the elimination of all accumulated non-vested sick days, as well as to a new short-term sick leave plan.
As well, doctors are being asked to maintain current compensation levels, while executives at hospitals, school boards and other government agencies are looking at a two-year wage freeze.
Salary concessions are also expected of Ontario Public Service Employees, including Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) workers.
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) accused the government of taking an "unbalanced approach" to the budget, seeking an unfair proportion of concessions from the province's teachers.
"The government has stated it has taken a 'balanced' approach to this budget, which implies that there is some give and take to help achieve overarching goals," OECTA president Kevin O'Dwyer said in a statement.
"We have always said that we are willing to do our part in these tough economic times, but right now the government's main target in education is teachers."
The union said it is committed to engaging in open dialogue with the government to address both parties' concerns.
"However, continuing to deal with bargaining issues and threatening legislative action in the media is detrimental to the constructive dialogue that is needed at this time," O'Dwyer said.
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE's Ontario branch, said the budget measures will lead to job losses in the public sector.
"This is all pain and no gain. There is no job creation here," Hahn told reporters at Queen's Park after the budget was tabled.
"And, in fact, when you look at the funding model that's being proposed in this budget, we will lose, literally, tens of thousands of jobs from the public sector and what that means is real service loss in communities. This will do nothing to help the economy of the province."
Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan decried what he called a "lack of vision" in the budget.
Ryan warned that too many cuts will in fact pose a drag on the economy.
"Ontarians never gave McGuinty a mandate to cut jobs and undermine the social safety net," he said. "Thankfully, we have a minority government that requires compromise for the budget to pass."
Ryan said 60 labour unions will take their grievances to Queen's Park, with a protest scheduled for April 21.
- With files from Emily Senger