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Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, seen here in September, 2018, called the bill 'reasonable' and 'fair,' and said it does not involve wage rollbacks or job losses.

Christopher Katsarov/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario government is moving to cap wage hikes for more than a million public-sector workers to no more than 1 per cent a year as the province enters negotiations with several teachers’ unions.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy introduced legislation on Wednesday to cap wage increases for the broader public sector on new contracts negotiated for a three-year period. The bill came with no notice to unions and the province’s public-service union decried the legislation as unconstitutional.

The government did not have specific figures about how much it expects to save but pointed out that every 1-per-cent increase in compensation costs the province an additional $720-million. Ontario is attempting to eliminate an $11.7-billion deficit.

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The Progressive Conservative government’s legislation follows a similar move in Manitoba, whose wage-freeze bill is set to be challenged in court later this year. The former Ontario Liberal government also implemented wage freezes for public-sector employees in 2012. And in 1993, former Ontario premier Bob Rae’s NDP government imposed a three-year wage freeze and unpaid leave on the province’s public service as part of its “social contract.”

Ontario’s wage cap, which would not apply to existing collective agreements, would affect teachers, staff at postsecondary institutions and hospitals, and those working in long-term care homes and for children’s aid societies, among others.

The province is set to begin the bargaining process with several education and teachers’ unions, whose contracts expire at the end of August. The legislation would not apply to municipal workers such as police or fire officials, but does apply to the Ontario Provincial Police, whose collective agreement does not expire until 2023.

Mr. Bethlenfalvy called the bill “reasonable” and “fair,” and said it does not involve wage rollbacks or job losses. Public-sector compensation represents roughly half of all government expenditures, totalling $72-billion annually, he said. The average public-sector employee makes $64,000.

“We respect the bargaining process and this proposed legislation continues to respect that process,” Mr. Bethlenfalvy told reporters at Queen’s Park. “But we have to also be honest with the people of Ontario about the fiscal situation.”

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said the government is violating collective bargaining rights that are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He said his union’s lawyer is preparing a constitutional challenge and vowed widespread protest this summer.

“I think they’re going to have a long hot summer,” he said. “My union and others, we’ll target all those Tory MPPs and their constituency offices, all their fundraisers, all their golf tournaments, all their barbecues – we’ll screw every one of them up.”

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He accused Mr. Ford of waging war on organized labour and saving money for a potentially costly fight with the Beer Store over the government’s plan to get beer and wine in corner stores.

In April, Mr. Ford’s government introduced a regulation that would allow it to start bargaining with education unions as early as April 29, a month ahead of the traditional schedule. The move suggested the PCs wanted to take steps to minimize labour disruptions in the next academic year.

A spokeswoman for Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the government would be moving a motion on Thursday to break for the summer until Oct. 28. That means the bill, Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations, likely won’t be dealt with until the fall.

Mr. Bethlenfalvy launched a six-week consultation exercise for scores of unions and employers in the public sector – universities, colleges, hospitals and other agencies, as well as government workers – to find ways to keep wage settlements “modest.”

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said he was literally at the bargaining table when he learned about the government’s legislation on Twitter.

“It’s a complete undermining of the good-faith bargaining process. You can’t sit down and negotiate when they hang legislation over your head. That’s not coming to mutual agreement,” Mr. Bischof said.

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“It becomes even more impossible to trust this government about anything that they say.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford’s government should turn its sights to the province’s wealthiest residents, not public-sector workers.

“The people who are being disrespected are the hard-working people of Ontario that provide our public services," she said.

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