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Tom Closson, president of the Ontario Hospital Association.

Health-care workers at two of Ontario's largest hospital networks have joined labour unions in response to pay discrepancies created by the McGuinty government's two-year wage freeze for public-sector employees who do not bargain collectively.

More than 1,400 registered nurses at Trillium Health Centre have joined Canada's largest nursing union, as hospital executives struggle with an unlevel playing field created by the government-imposed freeze that leaves many health-care workers earning different salaries for doing the same job.

The rush to unionization is far from over for Ontario's 156 hospitals, where about one-quarter of health-care workers do not bargain collectively. As a result, said Ontario Hospital Association president Tom Closson, they are at a disadvantage to their unionized colleagues who have received pay hikes either through settlements or arbitrated awards.

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"What the government did is unfair," Mr. Closson said.

Trillium was one of six hospitals in Ontario whose nurses were not part of the Ontario Nursing Association. Because they were subject to the wage freeze legislation that took effect in 2010, they did not receive a 3-per-cent increase that was part of the collective bargaining agreement for ONA members that year.

Morag McLean, vice-president of people and organizational effectiveness for Trillium and Credit Valley Hospital, which are in the process of merging, said the legislation created a "blatant" unfairness for nurses.

"We were caught by the legislation and unfortunately, there wasn't anything that we were able to do," she said.

The traditional matching raises also never came for several thousand nurses at the Hospital for Sick Children, Credit Valley, parts of London Health Sciences Centre and two smaller hospitals. "There's no question the inequity of the [wage freeze]on non-unionized workers has been a challenge on the whole system," said Mary Jo Haddad, chief executive officer of Hospital for Sick Children.

Officials in the health-care sector said the wage freeze, unveiled in the 2010 budget to help the government tackle a multibillion-dollar deficit, is creating pressure for others to unionize. The pay inequities arose because labour leaders and arbitrators have all but ignored the government's call for a voluntary freeze for those public-sector workers who bargain collectively.

Nurses are not the only ones affected. The wage freeze has also created a two-tier pay system for other health-care workers who are not unionized at some hospitals but are unionized at others.

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The other group, 113 pharmacy technicians at the three hospitals that comprise the University Health Network recently joined the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. OPSEU spokesman Don Ford said the technicians' main reason for joining was for respect and fairness in dealing with management and less to do with wages.

Registered nurses at one of the London Health Sciences Centre hospitals could also become unionized if the ONA succeeds with an application before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The ONA is arguing that nurses who work in the University Hospital should become unionized because London Health transfers many programs, along with staff, between it and Victoria Hospital, which is part of the ONA.

If the Labour Board rules that provincial legislation does apply to nurses at University Hospital, nurses have two options, said ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud. They can either automatically become certified with ONA or they can vote on it.

Steve Coulahan, vice-president of human resources at London Health Sciences, said the hospital is fighting the application.

Nevertheless, he said, the wage freeze legislation has created inequities within the system.

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