01/19/2012 10:49 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Liberal's 'unfair' wage freeze drove Ontario public workers to unions: Hudak

TORONTO - The Ontario government's public sector wage freeze is so unfair it has led to the biggest union drives since the 1930s, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Thursday.

The Liberal government asked public sector workers to take a voluntary two-year wage freeze in 2009, but it imposed one on managers and non-unionized staff, so some workers got raises while others didn't.

Embarrassing side deals that critics said were designed to get around the wage freeze also came to light, including bonuses for thousands of government managers and a guarantee that the OPP would be the highest paid police in the province.

The Ontario Hospital Association complained there were nurses in the same hospitals where some would get pay increases while others saw their salaries frozen because they were not in a union.

That unfairness prompted thousands of public sector workers to join a union, especially in hospitals, said Hudak.

"What’s happened by this divisive policy of Dalton McGuinty’s, we’ve seen the biggest union drives probably since the Great Depression," Hudak told reporters.

The Ontario Public Sector Employees Union increased its membership by 3,000 hospital workers because of the unfair Liberal wage freeze, said Hudak.

"Why is it OK for a non-union administrative person in the public sector to be paid $35,000 a year and have her pay frozen, but a teacher making $85,000 a year doesn’t have her pay frozen? Where’s the balance?" asked the Opposition leader.

"That’s not fair. We should treat everyone equally, and that’s why we’re calling for a public sector wage freeze for all of us to get spending under control and to save taxpayers $2 billion."

The union's website says "a large factor" in the decision by some hospital employees to join was the wage freeze for non-unionized public-sector workers, but OPSEU president Smokey Thomas laughed at Hudak's description of the extent of the union drives.

"The organizing drives that went on decades ago were a hell of a lot bigger than what’s going on now," Thomas said in an interview.

"My sense of Hudak is his hatred for unions has just intensified since the election."

Several big unions joined together under the umbrella Working Families Coalition and spent millions of dollars to ensure the Tories were defeated in last fall's election, but Thomas pointed out OPSEU was not a member of the coalition.

Premier Dalton McGuinty strongly suggested Thursday that the government will not legislate a pay freeze for doctors, teachers and one million public sector workers as it looks to cut costs to trim a $16-billion deficit.

"We’ll strike the appropriate balance," he said.

"We’ll bargain fairly and firmly, and we’ll ensure that we place our province, our government, on a path towards a balanced budget."

Economist Don Drummond, who has been hired by the government to review all public services and recommend which ones can be scrapped, scaled back or privatized, does not support a wage freeze.

"The approach that is being recommended by Mr. Hudak is not one that is favoured by Mr. Drummond," said McGuinty.

"We intend to be fair both to our public sector partners and to Ontario taxpayers," said McGuinty.

When asked directly if the voluntary wage freeze would expire in March, Government Services Minister Harinder Takhar hinted that public sector workers who did not have their wages frozen would be asked to do their part to fight the deficit.

"Some people have already contributed towards it and the other people need to contribute towards it, so there is no black or white answer to this at this point in time," said Takhar.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said he hadn't seen any numbers to back up Hudak's "rhetoric," and insisted Drummond's review may not lead to reduced services or fewer public sector jobs.

"We’ll make a range of choices as a government that will create jobs, strengthen the economy and improve wages and improve productivity as we go," said Duncan.

"It’s not about cutting. It’s about transforming, it’s about better productivity."

The government has warned some ministries may face cuts as deep as 30 per cent in the March budget as the Liberals try to rein in spending to deal with the deficit. Increases are only expected in health care and education.

Takhar would not comment on speculation the Liberals will privatize ServiceOntario as part of its spending review.