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The Globe and Mail

B.C., Ontario share the pain of public-sector labour strife

Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten speaks to Premier Dalton McGuinty at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday.


Spending restraints are fuelling labour unrest in two of Canada's largest provinces, with teachers' unions in Ontario threatening to withdraw from extracurricular activities and public auto-insurance workers in British Columbia getting set to walk off the job.

In Ontario, a bitter standoff between Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals and elementary and secondary teachers is widely expected to be repeated with other public-sector workers as the government targets them with the same kind of wage-freeze legislation it imposed on teachers.

"There will be legislation dealing with the broader public sector," Finance Minister Dwight Duncan told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday. "Everybody has to be treated equally."

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The friction comes as governments try to balance their books by clamping down on public-service wages and benefits. Workers feel that they lived with constraints during the recession and are in no mood to make concessions.

Just minutes after the Ontario government imposed a contract on teachers that freezes their wages for two years, union leaders said on Tuesday they will urge their members to protest by withdrawing their support for extracurricular activities.

"It's almost like this government is bloodthirsty," Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, said in an interview. "They don't believe in collaboration any more."

The fight with teachers ends nearly a decade of labour peace in Ontario. Mr. McGuinty, who styles himself the education Premier, adopted the tough stand after his calls for a voluntary pay freeze for public sector workers all but failed. This year alone, pay increases have averaged 1.7 per cent for the public sector.

Mr. McGuinty has said the wage freeze for teachers was necessary to preserve improvements his government made, including full-day kindergarten programs that saved teaching jobs, and caps to class sizes that improved working conditions.

But he is not just singling out teachers. The province faces a $14.8-billion deficit, and has no money to hike wages, which account for a huge chunk of program spending.

Negotiations with other public sector workers will take place this year against this backdrop. A total of 258 contracts covering just over 83,000 workers at police services and in hospitals and long-term care homes come up for renewal between now and the end of 2012. Workers must agree to the government's demands or have a contract imposed on them.

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British Columbia's public sector unions have lived with "net zero" wage controls for three years. Last week, the 27,000-member B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union held a one-day strike in what promises to be an escalating conflict. The government has offered a total pay hike of 3.5 per cent over two years, well short of the union's demands.

The walkout by the BCGEU – accompanied by two other public sector unions – was the first job action by the direct civil service in decades, and a sign that discontent with the current regime is rising in anticipation of an election next spring.

Next week, 1,500 workers at the public auto-insurance agency, the Insurance Corporation of BC, are set to begin strike action.

The B.C. Liberal government is trailing badly in the polls as it prepares for an election campaign just seven months away. Premier Christy Clark recently said taxpayers will not foot the bill for public sector raises. Her government has promised to balance the budget in February.

As Ontario and British Columbia become labour hot spots over restraint measures, Quebec's incoming Parti Québécois government appears to be headed the other way.

Premier-designate Pauline Marois has pledged to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for measures that will reduce revenue, from abolishing the province's $200 health tax to freezing university tuition and daycare rates.

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The previous PQ government paid a heavy price for austerity measures in the late 1990s. Ms. Marois threatened to resign from her job as minister of health and social services when then-premier Lucien Bouchard drew up a plan to slash government employees' wages. Mr. Bouchard cut jobs and made other cost-saving measures instead.

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