TORONTO - The minority Liberal government's plan to impose a wage freeze on nearly 500,000 Ontario public sector workers appeared doomed to defeat Monday as the Tories became the second opposition party to say they could not vote for the draft bill.
The proposed legislation has "no backbone" because it exempts municipalities, police, firefighters and public transit workers, and it fails to impose an immediate pay freeze on workers, said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
"I’m prepared to be part of genuine solutions to address the debt and spending crisis (but) this does neither, so no we can’t support this proposal," Hudak said of the draft bill unveiled last Wednesday by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
"I would strongly discourage the minister from bringing this forward."
The Liberals' bill would freeze wages of most public sector employees for two years after current contracts expire, but like legislation last month that imposed a contract on teachers _ which passed with Tory support _ it would also allow some upward movement on salary grids.
"It’s not a wage freeze, it just kicks the problem down the road until 2015 and then maybe gets around to freezing wages at a higher level," said Hudak.
A spokesman for Duncan said the finance minister was "very disappointed" with the PC leader's dismissive response to a wage freeze bill that the government had spent months drafting.
The Tories tried to pass their own legislation that would have opened existing labour contracts to impose an immediate freeze on public sector pay, and complained the Liberals' bill still allows performance bonuses that were given to 98 per cent of government managers last year.
"PC members were shocked when it baked in the management bonuses," said Hudak.
"I think those should be stripped away until we balance the books at the very least."
The New Democrats flatly oppose any wage freeze legislation, predicting it will be struck down by the courts and end up costing taxpayers even more in the long run.
"It’s easy to take that ham-fisted approach, but if it’s irresponsible and if it’s going to cost us more money in the long run then I think it’s the wrong way to go," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath
"It's very clear that it is going to cost us more money because it will be challenged at the Supreme Court, and it will fail."
Horwath warned the anger that prompted some public school teachers to withdraw from extracurricular activities will spill over into hospitals and nursing homes if the Liberals proceed with the bill,which also allows the government to impose contracts if it doesn't like what the two sides negotiate.
"We’re not interested at all in the kind of direction, the kind of path that’s going to lead to the same turmoil that we’re seeing now in schools in other places like hospitals and long-term care centres," she said.
With the NDP firmly opposed, the Liberals will need at least two PC votes to pass the wage freeze bill.
The Tories agreed to support the Liberals' bill imposing a contract on teachers, even though it fell short of the full wage freeze they'd been demanding, saying "half-a-loaf" was better than nothing. However, the bill affecting the broader public sector must freeze wages now and strengthen the arbitration process, said Hudak.
"If they bring something back that has teeth, we can talk about it," he said.
The Liberals say a wage freeze will help eliminate a deficit of almost $15 billion while protecting jobs and government services rather than forcing them to lay off workers.
The Conservatives say layoffs are needed to reduce the cost and size of government, and want a 12.5 per cent spending cut in all ministries except health and education.
"Whatever that equates to in government jobs, that is a serious approach that won’t be easy, but it is absolutely necessary if you want to get out of this debt hole," said Hudak.
"You need to not only freeze pay for government workers, you need fewer of them."