The battle between Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and the province's teachers is escalating, leaving him facing his first showdown with labour just as delicate talks to save his minority government enter the 11th hour.
The latest salvo comes from Ontario's high-school teachers, who are gearing up to launch a legal challenge against the government for its hardball approach to collective bargaining. This comes after disgruntled elementary teachers walked away from the bargaining table, and as a fight is brewing between the government and the province's doctors.
After eight and a half years of labour peace during Mr. McGuinty's rein, the province is heading into a new era of labour strife brought on by a multibillion-dollar deficit that is forcing the government to take a hard line with public-sector workers who bargain collectively.
The discord is not expected to end with workers in the health care and education sectors – the very constituents Mr. McGuinty spent his years in office wooing. It is widely expected to spread as unions in other sectors head into bargaining. In all, 1,296 contracts expire this year, covering 335,678 public sector workers.
"Every labour leader in this province has asked them repeatedly to stop sticking their nose in and picking fights," said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
The government is calling on teachers, doctors and other public-sector workers who bargain collectively to freeze their wages voluntarily for two years. Mr. McGuinty told reporters on Tuesday that his government cannot eliminate the province's $15.3-billion deficit unless "we hit the pause button" on public sector pay.
The pay freeze could be a sticking point in talks with the New Democratic Party heading into next Tuesday's vote on the budget motion. Mr. McGuinty said the parties have "common ground," but he called on Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath to say where she stands on the wage freezes. She responded that they don't work.
Against this backdrop, the union that represents high-school teachers posted a notice on its website on Tuesday saying it will file a legal challenge to the bargaining process with the Ontario Labour Relations Board this week.
Instead of sitting down to negotiate, the government simply tabled its offer to teachers: a pay freeze for two years, no movement within the existing salary grid, an end to retirement payouts for unused sick days.
"It's unprecedented what they're [the government is]/note> doing," Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president Ken Coran said of the government in an interview last week.
The best place to find solutions is at the bargaining table, countered Education Minister Laurel Broten. "We still believe the discussion table will be fruitful."
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, said his union is considering whether to follow the legal route taken by its high-school counterparts.