Fresh from its escalating fight with elementary and secondary school teachers, the Ontario government has reached a tentative labour deal with the province's largest public-sector union.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union has agreed to a two-year wage freeze for its 130,000 members, something that was never an obstacle to signing a new contract, according to labour sources. Rather, they said, it was a separate accord with the government, exempting the OPSEU pension plan from becoming part of a proposed super fund, that helped clinch the deal.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was quick to contrast the "responsible" approach taken by officials at OPSEU with their counterparts at the province's elementary and secondary teachers unions. Mr. Duncan told reporters on Wednesday that his officials spent 700 hours bargaining with OPSEU while the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario walked away from the table after just one hour.
"I think ETFO can learn a lot from them," he said of OPSEU. "Imposed agreements gain something in the short term, but cause problems down the road."
The tentative deal with OPSEU was reached early Wednesday morning after a marathon round of bargaining. Labour sources said government officials were keen to sign a deal before a new Liberal leader is chosen on the weekend of Jan. 25.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas said his members wanted to avoid having a contract imposed on them, similar to what the government did with the province's teachers last week.
"We wanted to bargain the best deal we could," he said. "If you throw the dice and have something imposed on you, you never know what you're going to get."
But the spectre of the government imposing a deal on OPSEU pretty much vanished after Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature last October. As a result, the government was unable to introduce proposed legislation that would have imposed a two-year wage freeze on all public-sector workers and stripped their collective-bargaining rights. OPSEU officials had complained that the legislation would have jeopardized their ability to negotiate a fair contract. The government also abandoned plans to create a pooled fund to manage the pension plans for employees in community colleges, many universities and OPSEU.
But under an accord with the government last October, OPSEU and the fund for community colleges have been exempted from becoming part of the super fund.
Mr. Thomas said any attempt by the government to change the pension plan could have led his members to walk out on strike.
"We got that off the table," he said.