The Ontario government plans to introduce legislation that would freeze wages for all workers who bargain collectively in the public sector.
Just one day after the governing Liberals' new law freezing wages and banning strikes for the province's elementary and secondary teachers came into force, Premier Dalton McGuinty confirmed that he now plans to target other public-service workers.
Mr. McGuinty said his government will call upon all public-service workers to be "part of the solution" by voluntarily agreeing to freeze their wages for two years. If they don't co-operate, he said, his government will use legislation to impose contracts.
"My sense is we'll be talking about something that is more holistic in nature, more across the board," he told reporters on Wednesday, following a tour of George Brown College's downtown Toronto campus.
"We're all in this together," he added, making it clear he is not just singling out the province's teachers.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan sent a letter in July to labour leaders, reiterating the same message in this year's budget: workers must agree to freeze their wages for two years to help the province eliminate its $14.8-billion dollar deficit. The letter warned that the government could resort to legislation.
Mr. Duncan told reporters on Tuesday that he has seen some negotiated settlements since his budget last March that are "unacceptable."
Mr. Duncan declined to name names. But York University's faculty association recently signed a contract awarding staff 6 per cent pay increases over three years. The University of Toronto's faculty association also recently reached a tentative, three-year accord that includes wage increases of 5.5 per cent after including pension contributions.
The government will not attempt to re-open any agreements, but employees may be forced to forego future wage increases, Mr. Duncan said.
"If somebody in an agreement didn't follow the government's instructions in my July letter, we may not make it retroactive but we may make it apply to the next round of bargaining," he said.
An across-the-board wage freeze would help reduce costs and at the same time allow the government to protect the gains it has made in health care and education.
"We have to be fair," Mr. Duncan said. "We have to treat people equally across the broader public sectors."
His comments set the stage for negotiations with other public sector workers this year, including doctors, who say they are prepared to return to the bargaining table after their own dispute with the government, as well as police officers and employees in hospitals and long-term care homes.
A total of 258 contracts covering just over 83,000 workers come up for renewal between now and the end of 2012. The number of workers does not include those whose contracts have already expired but have not yet been renewed.
Mr. McGuinty said he is confident the wage freeze legislation will survive a court challenge because his government is not breaking open any existing collective agreements. Labour leaders have vowed to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
He also urged teachers to "do what they've always done" and not listen to union leaders who are calling on them to protest the legislation by cutting back on leading clubs and coaching sports team on their own time.
"I know we are going through a rough patch with some of our teachers," Mr. McGuinty said. "What I can't accept would be any decision on the part of teachers to withdraw services that are in fact part and parcel of what students have come to expect."
His government's fight with teachers ends nearly a decade of labour peace in Ontario. Mr. McGuinty, who styles himself the Education Premier, adopted the tough stance initially with the province's doctors and then with teachers after his calls for a voluntary pay freeze for public sector workers who bargain collectively all but failed. This year alone, pay increases averaged 1.7 per cent in the second quarter for the public sector.
The government has the support of the Progressive Conservatives in turning its sights on the public sector. Tory Leader Tim Hudak has pushed for an across-the-board wage freeze that he says would produce annual savings of $2-billion.
The New Democrats are opposed to any wage freeze legislation, including for teachers.
"Mere weeks ago the government denounced a Conservative plan for an 'unconstitutional wage scheme' that would 'cost families billions,'" NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in Question Period, quoting the Liberals' own statements. "I just want to know when the Premier changed his mind."