By ANTONELLA ARTUSO and JONATHAN JENKINS, Queen's Park Bureau
Public sector unions banking that a minority government will cave to demands for wage increases have a zero chance of success, a senior government official says.
“None of the three parties ran on funding increases,” the official said. “The government will take the position that’s consistent with the policy to date.”
In other words, the Liberals will stick to their public sector wage freeze, even if arbitrators have made awards above zero.
Holding the line on wages is critical for an Ontario government struggling with a $15 billion deficit, as paying the help is a huge chunk of the province’s soon to be $126 billion annual budget.
Gregory Thomas, of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, was quite blunt.
“If you look at the public accounts the Ontario government is one big payroll. Payroll is the Ontario government.”
The government must stick to its guns now in order to maintain a wage freeze. The next 13 months will see the government open contract talks with doctors, teachers and two unions representing the majority of the Ontario Public Service proper.
Three of the four are paid directly by the government, and the fourth — teachers — are funded by the government so if Premier Dalton McGuinty wants to set an example for the myriad other unions comprising Ontario’s broader pubic sector, the buck must stop here.
So far, zero hasn’t meant exactly zero. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced in his 2010 budget that he would bargain for zero per cent increases across the board for 2011 and 2012. Arbitrators — who don’t have to answer to the government — paid little heed and granted several contracts worth more, but a senior government official who spoke to the Sun about the coming contract talks said the approach is far from a failure.
“It’s right and fair to say we haven’t achieved zeros across the board but there have been a number of contracts that have been zeros,” he said, adding the average non-municipal wage deal since the freeze came in is 1.5%.
That’s lower than the average private sector increase over the same period (1.9%), municipalities (2.4%) and the federal public service (1.7%).
“It does show that our plan has worked.”
Not having control of the Legislature does not represent a concern, the official insisted, even though neither the opposition Progressive Conservatives nor the New Democrats will back the freeze.
“We’ll always be in the middle on this,” he said.
“If we get zero, the Tories would say you should have got zero and something on the pensions.
“They’ll always say it’s too much and the NDP will always say it’s not enough.”
But the CTF’s Thomas said he remains “completely pessimistic” that the current minority government can successfully manage negotiations with its public sector unions to the benefit of taxpayers.
“The NDP is the political arm of organized labour and increasingly they’re the political arm of public sector unions. They will support additional borrowing to provide larger salaries, pensions and benefits for unionized government employees,” he said. “If the premier looks in that direction to sustain his government, it’s going to be a very tough scenario.”
Nor can taxpayers necessarily look to the Tim Hudak Conservatives to stand up for them during negotiations, Thomas suggested.
The Ontario PCs went into the election without a credible plan to control spending, Thomas said.
“There was nothing there. He wouldn’t even commit to balancing the budget in his term of office had he won a majority,” Thomas said.
PC finance critic Peter Shurman said his party would be “looking over the shoulder” of the Liberals as they negotiate, as his party believes the Grits have botched labour relations and have no faith they can be trusted to bargain with the best interests of the taxpayer at heart.
“We can’t have 7% of Ontarians who have no pension recourse whatsoever ... paying the freight for people who have gilt-edged defined benefit pensions,” Shurman said. “I would hope that in this minority period, their stance would be informed by what we’re saying.
A united front would strengthen the government’s position in contract talks, where the unions’ will inevitably be gunning for more pay, less work, earlier retirement and richer pension.
“Let’s face it Ontario has terrific unions,” he said.
“The public sector unions are as probably as good a union as you’re going to find anywhere in the world at extracting money from taxpayers.
“There has got be someone sitting at the other side of the table representing the public.”
Public workers say they’re certainly not oblivious to the changing province and world around them, but that must be balanced with the need for services.
Dr. Stewart Kennedy, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said the organization’s board of directors will consider negotiating goals at its December meeting.
“As an association and as physicians, we do understand the economic realities out there ... when you spend 47% of the budget on health care, we know this is not going to be sustainable if we don’t all take a look at how we deliver service,” Kennedy said. “Having said that, we have really a long history of really working collaboratively with the bureaucracy at every different level to see how we can help solve problems in the system. It’s all about what we call mutual gains.”
People need better access to higher quality health care, and physicians are prepared to consider innovative and economical ways of meeting those needs, but more money will be required, he said.
That could be offset by savings achieved through efficiency measures like moving services into publicly-funded independent health clinics, he said.
Teacher collective agreements end this August.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said his negotiators are preparing for contract talks with school boards across the province beginning this spring.
During the last two rounds of bargaining, the province invited teacher associations to join them for a discussion on common issues such as wages, separate from the local negotiations.
So far, that invitation has not been extended despite the fact that the province holds the purse strings and is committed to a wage freeze.
“We’ve always been focused on local bargaining; we continue to do that. And if there’s an indication from this government that they want to do something else then we will as an organization consider it at that time,” Hammond said.
Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), said he believes that a minority government can find “middle ground” if the three political leaders are mature enough to work together.
“I’m hoping for a spirit of cooperation rather than more of that mudslinging and character assassination stuff,” Thomas said, adding he’s preparing letters to ask for a meeting with Hudak, McGuinty and Horwath.
“We’re not going to be bargaining for anything extravagant, I can guarantee that, but we’re not really prepared to give up a lot of ground that we fought decades to gain. I don’t think any working person should.
“For me to say to a member, the government says we should take zero while the managers are getting $25-$30-$40-$60,000 bonuses, that’s a tough sell, very tough sell. Dalton McGuinty can say well that’s not really a raise, ... it’s still cash in your pocket.”