As you may know, leaders from several public sector unions and employer groups met on July 20 with Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan. He invited us.
The subject of the meeting was what Duncan calls “compensation restraint.” I call it what it is: cuts to wages and benefits for hardworking people.
The two-hour session was a staged media event and a re-hash of the March 25 Budget. The Minister wants all workers paid by the province (directly or indirectly) to accept two years of zero per cent pay increases.
He calls this a wage freeze, but it’s not. It’s a cut. With inflation running at around two per cent these years, “zero per cent increase” really means “four per cent cut.” And it’s a cut, we are told, that applies to all compensation costs, not just wages.
This is nothing new. But the Minister did propose two things we had not heard before.
First, he wants his staff to meet with unions and employers to discuss his plans. Second, he asked both sides to stop sending bargaining issues to arbitration.
On the first point, OPSEU has agreed to meet with government representatives on Aug. 9. I doubt they are interested in real negotiations, but we’ll see. I suspect they just want our help to cut our members’ wages and benefits. They won’t get it.
We’ll go to the Aug. 9 meeting. We’ll listen. Then, on Aug. 10, leaders from each OPSEU sector and our Executive Board will meet. What happens on those two days will guide our strategy from there on.
On the second point, the right to send outstanding issues to arbitration is part of normal collective bargaining. It is protected under applicable law, and we will defend it by any means necessary.
I want to be very clear: If you are in bargaining now, or two years from now, the government’s plans should not affect your determination to get a good contract. I urge you to work with your co-workers, your local, your sector, and your OPSEU Executive Board Members to bring home the best deal possible in these challenging times.
Do not assume that you must accept zeros. Do not assume you can only bargain “non-monetary” items. The history of the labour movement is filled with employers who cried that the cupboard was bare. I believe we can make progress, even in tough times.
How? Simple: No matter what the bargaining climate, we negotiate strong contracts when our members are ready to back their bargaining teams.
Members will do this when they know their cause is just. As our news release July 20 pointed out, our cause is just. OPSEU members did nothing to create the economic meltdown that caused the provincial deficit. It is absolutely unfair to single out people to pay for that deficit just because they happen to be public employees. It is even more unfair that rich individuals will not pay one penny extra towards the deficit.
And don’t forget that profitable corporations are getting massive tax breaks. Based on their expected profits of $20 billion in 2010, Canada’s Big Six banks will see their Ontario corporate income taxes fall by at least $200 million this year alone.
If you accept a wage cut, the money you give up won’t go to save public services. It will pay for tax cuts for the banks.
If the money were really being used to save public services, it might be a different story. But the McGuinty Liberals aim to cut wages and cut jobs at the same time. Public services will suffer, and the families and communities we serve will suffer as well. In addition, cuts will undermine our economic recovery, just when households and communities need every dollar they can find.
This fight is a fight against bad public policy. We will not hesitate to take whatever action is necessary to get what is fair and to get what OPSEU members need.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas President,
Ontario Public Service Employees Union