TORONTO - Who's next?
It's a question on the minds of many Ontario public sector workers as the governing Liberals push through legislation that would force new contracts on teachers to slay a $15-billion deficit.
Premier Dalton McGuinty made it clear Friday that government employees are next on his list — and he'll be "relentless" in his pursuit of a wage freeze.
"We've got to take a look at the broader public sector, but I'm making it clear we're coming, we're coming, we're coming," he said in Waterloo. "We intend to freeze compensation."
The government is already in talks with the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO), which represents about 12,000 workers, from policy analysts to economists and veterinarians.
Talks with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 38,000 workers, are set to begin in November.
The government has set a deadline of Sept. 9 for a new collective agreement with AMAPCEO after more than two months of bargaining, the union said Friday.
The association tabled an offer a month ago that offered a two-year wage freeze and other proposals that would reduce the cost of administrating their collective agreement, said union president Gary Gannage. But the government wants more.
"So while the premier says he wants a wage freeze, in reality the government negotiators have been demanding an additional two to three per cent cut from our collective agreement," he said in an interview. "So it's not limited to a wage freeze."
The threat of legislation is a source of concern, Gannage said.
AMAPCEO is planning a noon rally on Wednesday on the front lawn of the legislature — a week after it was packed with Ontario teachers outraged over a bill that freezes wages and cuts benefits.
Unions representing the majority of teachers are protesting the controversial bill, which would also give the government the power for at least two years to ban strikes and lockouts.
It's expected to pass in the legislature as early as Sept. 10, with the support of the Progressive Conservatives.
Unions representing the majority of teachers argue the dispute isn't about money, but the violation of their collective bargaining rights, and say they're prepared to take their fight to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Liberals said they've tried to bargain since February, but some of the unions walked away from the table after only an hour and didn't come back.
English Catholic and francophone teachers signed on to an agreement with the province, which included three unpaid days off, halving sick days to 10 a year and the elimination of the banking of unused sick days that could be cashed out at retirement.
But the government said it can't wait any longer for other unions to come around, because their old contracts will automatically roll over Sept. 1, incurring extra costs the province can't afford.
McGuinty warned civil servants that his government isn't afraid to play hardball, because there's no money for pay hikes.
"We can negotiate how to get there, but the 'there' is not the subject of negotiation," he said.
"The 'there' represents a freeze in public sector compensation in a way that does not compromise the quality of services we are delivering in our classrooms or in health care."
The premier's just ramping up the rhetoric to look tough ahead of two potentially game-changing byelections next week, the opposition parties said.
It's all part of the show that unfolded this week, with McGuinty warning that the bill had to be passed by Friday, even though it's retroactive to Sept. 1, said New Democrat Gilles Bisson.
"They're trying to create yet another crisis so that he can be seen in a byelection to do something," he said. "Liberals are pretty desperate."
If McGuinty really felt the matter was urgent, he shouldn't have spent the past week using students as pawns to influence the byelections, said Progressive Conservative Peter Shurman.
He should stop sitting on his hands and legislate an across-the-board wage freeze immediately, because he has as much of a chance getting the unions to agree to one as a snowball surviving in hell, he said.
"It'll snow in July, (Finance Minister) Dwight Duncan will cross the floor and sit with the PC caucus ... before they sit down and negotiate that wage freeze," he said.
Critics point out that McGuinty has spent a great deal of time talking about the legislation in Kitchener-Waterloo, which was held by the Conservatives and has become a major battleground for all three parties.
Education Minister Laurel Broten was also making the rounds in the area before the teachers' bill was even introduced in the legislature.
She announced Friday that almost 3,000 education assistants, resource workers and francophone support staff have signed on with the province. There were some differences, she said, such as one unpaid day off in the second year rather than three.
As for Vaughan, the Liberals appear to be confident that they'll hang on to the seat, which was held by longtime Liberal Greg Sorbara.
By forcing a new contract on teachers, McGuinty is going against the advice of his austerity expert who warned in his February report that wage freezes don't work.
"Wage freezes damage labour relations and are often followed by wage catch-ups," former economist Don Drummond wrote in the report.