Walkom: Ontario restraint bill much more than two-year wage freeze
By Thomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist
The Ontario government is selling its new public restraint bill as a simple, two-year wage freeze.
A close reading shows the proposed law is much, much broader.
Unveiled on Wednesday by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, it would give the provincial cabinet wartime-style powers over public sector compensation for at least six years.
If approved by the legislature, the Protecting Public Services bill would allow the government to not just freeze the wages it pays to unionized employees — ranging from nurses to home care workers to hydro linemen — but roll them back.
It would give cabinet the power to scrap or modify salary grids — as it has already done with the province’s teachers. The government would also be able to unilaterally change or eliminate any non-wage benefits unionized public sector workers now receive.
And the bill would bar unions from either striking or appealing such decisions to the courts.
For essential services such as hospitals, where workers are already barred from striking, the bill would prevent contract arbitrators from basing their rulings on either the Canadian constitution or the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Indeed, the arbitration section is perhaps the most internally contradictory part of the draft legislation.
Arbitration is based on the notion of having a fair-minded umpire decide issues that management and workers cannot. But this bill would allow that fair-minded umpire’s decision to be overturned by the government, which to all intents and purposes is management.
As written, the bill would not necessarily expire in two years. Indeed, it gives cabinet the right to keep this extraordinary regime in place until the provincial fiscal deficit is eliminated — which the government says won’t happen before 2018.
Ironically, the Liberal government is trying to push these new measures through at a time when public sector wage increases are anything but excessive.
Figures produced by the government’s own Labour Ministry show that for most of the last three years, wage increases negotiated by public sector unions have lagged behind those of their private counterparts.
Only in the last few months has there been catch-up. Between January and July, new collective agreements in both the public and private sectors provided identical average base wage hikes of 1.7 per cent.
But for most of the last three years, public sector wage increases were below the rate of inflation.
One could legitimately ask why the government is spending so much effort tackling problems — excessive public sector wage hikes — that don’t exist.
The answer is that Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals have placed themselves in a box.
Fearful that credit rating agencies might downgrade Ontario’s debt (a move that could raise borrowing costs) they are focusing on the province’s$14.8-billion deficit rather than the recession that created it.
Politically, the Liberals figure the easiest way to eliminate that deficit is by cutting back the public sector wage bill.
Whether they can succeed is another matter.
The Liberals already have been punished politically for launching a similar attack on teachers. That, arguably, lost them this month’s Kitchener-Waterloo by-election.
The most recent public opinion poll shows the governing party in third place province-wide.
Nor is it certain that the proposed law can withstand a court challenge.
The government hopes that its plan to let existing contracts expire before applying the hammer will prevent judges from declaring its bill unconstitutional.
But courts are hard to predict.
In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that similar arbitrary actions by the government of British Columbia were unconstitutional.
In 2003, the top court ruled that an effort initiated by former premier Mike Harris to stack the deck in Ontario arbitration cases offended the principle of creating a “neutral and credible alternative for the right to strike.”
Yet the Supreme Court also ruled last year that while collective bargaining is constitutionally protected, trade unions are not.
So we shall see what happens. This thing is just starting.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.