Tories criticize wage freeze bill as weak; won't say if they'll support it

TORONTO – After demanding a legislated wage freeze for all public sector workers in Ontario, the Progressive Conservatives refused to say Friday if they would support the minority Liberal government’s proposed bill affecting nearly 500,000 people paid by taxpayers.

The draft bill is weak and exempts municipalities, which means local police, firefighters and public transit workers would not be captured by the wage freeze, said PC critic Monte McNaughton.

“This legislation is clearly lacking teeth,” McNaughton said of the bill unveiled Wednesday by the Liberals.

“(Premier Dalton) McGuinty is taking a weak approach. He has no backbone and he doesn’t have the courage to make the tough decisions.”

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the government faced a difficult choice between freezing wages or laying off staff and cutting services, and decided the fair thing was to protect existing jobs by asking workers to forego pay hikes for two years to help eliminate a deficit of nearly $15 billion.

The bill would require civil servants plus workers at hospitals, colleges, universities, hydro companies, long-term care homes, public health units and provincial agencies to accept a two-year wage freeze in their next agreement, but also gives Duncan the power to impose a contract if he doesn’t like what the two sides negotiate.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath immediately condemned the legislation as “wrong-headed,” and said the New Democrats would vote against it because they believe contracts should be negotiated, not imposed by government.

Duncan said he released the draft version to get feed back from the Opposition, knowing the minority government will need the votes of at least two Progressive Conservatives to get the bill passed.

However, PC Leader Tim Hudak refused all week to make himself available to comment on the wage freeze.

Instead, other Tory MPPs were sent out to attack the proposed legislation without saying clearly if the party would support it.

The Liberals were quick to mock Hudak’s unwillingness to take a position on the wage freeze bill.

“Where’s Tim Hudak? He supported the Putting Students First Act,” said Ontario Liberal party president Yasir Naqvi, who is also parliamentary assistant to the minister of finance.

“Tim Hudak can’t duck his responsibility forever.”

The Tories voted to support the Liberals’ bill earlier this month that imposed a contract that freezes wages for most teachers, but said the legislation affecting 2,295 contracts for 481,00 public sector workers exempted too many others in the broader public sector.

“Our legislation would have covered all 1.3 million in the broader public sector,” said McNaughton.

“That’s what’s needed in Ontario. It’s the only way to get costs under control.”

The Liberals say their wage freeze bills and agreements already signed with other unions will cover about one million workers, and point out the legislation also strengthens the arbitration process in a way that should help municipalities control rising costs for police, firefighters and public transit.

McNaughton called the draft bill “a channel changer for a government that’s in serious trouble for blowing” hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on two gas plants it cancelled in Oakville and Mississauga, and said the Tories wanted to wait for the real legislation to be introduced in the House.

“They have no time frame for when they’re actually going to put forward legislation and told me they’re not going to introduce it in the foreseeable future,” said McNaughton. “We have to wait and see what’s brought forth.”

Public sector unions have vowed to challenge the legislation in court, saying it virtually eliminates their right to strike by allowing the government to impose a contract and interferes with the collective bargaining process.