Fresh from its fight with elementary and secondary school teachers, the Ontario government is bracing for a new wave of labour unrest with the province's largest public-sector union.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union said on Friday that the government has rebuffed its offer to boycott coming bargaining talks, a move that would have led to an automatic one-year extension of the existing contract and a freeze on wage increases.
OPSEU officials notified the government on Thursday evening that they do not want to participate in the coming round of bargaining. OPSEU said in a notice to its members that any effort to negotiate a fair contract has been "hijacked" by proposed legislation that would impose a two-year wage freeze on public-sector workers and strip their collective bargaining rights.
But less than 24 hours later, the government formally notified OPSEU that it expects bargaining talks to begin on Nov. 5 as previously scheduled. The contract for 130,000 employees, including 36,000 in the public service, expires on Dec. 31.
OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas was taken aback that the government refused to simply allow the contract for his members to roll over for another year.
He said in a statement that Premier Dalton McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan have "shown their true colours," despite their public comments about the need to push the pause button on public-sector wages.
"There is no 'pause button' for this government," Mr. Thomas said. "They only want to hit rewind."
Mr. Thomas is worried that the government plans to demand concessions from employees at the bargaining table and accelerate its plans to spin off more services to the private sector.
The government unveiled plans in the budget last March to create a one-stop online service for services ranging from birth certificates to licence-plate validation stickers and property title searchers – and sell it to the private sector.
The wage freeze legislation would allow the government to "basically write their own contract with employees and force it down their throats," Mr. Thomas said.
The government announced last month that it intends to introduce legislation that would arm it with broad powers to impose collective agreements on public-sector workers.
Public-sector workers in Ontario who bargain collectively would have their wages frozen for two years. However, firefighters, police officers and other municipal workers would be exempt.
The cash-strapped government introduced controversial legislation last August to freeze elementary and secondary teachers' wages for two years.
It is now targeting employees in universities, colleges, hospitals, long-term-care homes, hydro utilities and within the civil service, as part of a plan to rein in compensation and reduce the province's deficit of $14.8-billion.
But with no support from the Progressive Conservatives or the New Democrats, the minority governing Liberals face an uphill battle getting the draft legislation passed into law.
"If government employees are offering to accept a pay freeze I'd hope the government would actually listen, instead of simply walking away," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement.
Government officials said on Friday they are disappointed with OPSEU's comments on the coming round of bargaining.
"We recognize that difficult fiscal circumstances will require sacrifices by all, including OPSEU members," John Friesen, a spokesman for Government Services Minister Harinder Takhar, said in a statement. "Our objective will be to negotiate a fair agreement that balances the interests of employees with the need to provide sustainable and affordable public services."
Mr. Thomas said his members, who earn on average $45,000 a year, are well aware of the economic realities confronting the province.
"No one is looking for a pot of gold," he said.