Ford government sets the stage for capping public sector raises

Unions representing a wide range of Ontario’s public sector workers — from teachers to nurses to hospital janitors — fear that legislation to freeze or limit their wages is on the way.

The Ford government is meeting with the unions for what it describes as “consultation sessions” on reining in public sector pay. One of the proposals floated by the province: capping future wage increases through legislation.

Such a cap could be imposed on hundreds of thousands of workers in Ontario, including those employed by school boards, colleges, universities, government agencies and the province itself.

Several labour leaders told CBC News they believe the Ford government will table a bill to cap pay hikes for public sector unions in late May or early June, shortly after the consultation sessions wrap up.

The consultations are a sham, said Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU).

Thomas and other union officials say they believe the government is holding these sessions in an attempt to prevent the courts from throwing out such a legislated wage cap.

“In my mind they’re just ticking off the boxes to fight off a Charter challenge if they interfere in collective bargaining in any way,” Thomas said in an interview Wednesday.

The Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly ruled that while governments are allowed to legislate wage freezes, they must consult with unions before imposing any contract terms, since the right to collective bargaining is protected under the Charter.

The Ford cabinet minister in charge of the consultations, Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, first revealed in early April that the government is considering a legislated wage cap as a way to keep costs in check.

In an interview Wednesday, he insisted that no decisions have been made. “We’ve gone in with good faith,” said Bethlenfalvy. “What we said all along is all options are on the table. It’s a consultative process and we’ve opened up for all good ideas coming our way, so we’ll let that process continue.”

The Ford government has a big incentive to clamp down on wages. Its budget projections over the next few years are largely predicated on health and education workers getting little to nothing in the way of pay increases.

Bargaining is poised to begin for the province’s four teachers’ unions and other unionized education workers. Their contracts all expire at the end of August.

It’s far from clear that negotiated pay hikes with public sector unions are to blame for Ontario’s deficit. As the government’s own statistics reveal, the average wage settlements in the public sector have actually been lower than those in the private sector for five years running.

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, says his members earn on average $40,000 a year and their pay increases have fallen short of inflation over the past decade.

“Their wages are not a king’s or queen’s ransom,” said Hahn in an interview.

“These are the folks who keep our schools clean, the folks who are orderlies and [personal support workers] in hospitals and long-term care facilities, who work in child care centres,” he added.

“We really have no clue about what the government is planning for us with respect to public-sector wage restraint because they have not been direct about it,” said Michael Hurley, who leads the Ontario Coalition of Hospital Unions.

“We can’t really get answers to any of our questions in a meaningful way — for example, whether the government is considering legislation, how long this restraint regime that they’re contemplating would last,” said Hurley.

For a taste of what the Ford government could do, look to Manitoba. Its Progressive Conservative government slapped a legislated two-year wage freeze on public sector unions.

The Manitoba legislation is now the subject of a court battle. Manitoba unions tried to win an injunction to strike down the legislation immediately, arguing that it was already interfering in negotiations. A judge declined to grant the injunction, ruling that the constitutional validity of the bill needs to be tested in a full hearing, scheduled for later this year.

Here in Ontario, it’s a safe bet that any move by the Ford government to legislate a cap on contract settlements will also end up in court.

“I suspect if [the government does] go ahead with wage controls, we’re going to see many constitutional challenges brought by unions in the broader public sector.” said Steven Barrett, a labour lawyer who has represented a range of public sector unions.

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