This past week, the Government of Ontario proposed legislation to freeze the wages of teachers for the next two years. Bill 115, also known as Putting Students First, would “force a wage freeze and cuts to benefits on tens of thousands of teachers across the province.”1 “The legislation, which three unions have vowed to fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, will also give the government the power to ban strikes and lockouts for at least two years.”1
Teachers unions are threatening retaliation and court challenges. With a by-election called for this week, “The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario – representing 76,000 members – said it’s calling on all teachers to volunteer in the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo, which was previously held by the Tories.”2
MP Olivia Chow, has voiced her view that “the Liberals are bullying tens of thousands of teachers and education workers by trying to force new contracts on them”.3
It’s hard not to draw a parallel between the governments approach to teachers and the standstill in its negotiations with Ontario’s physicians. Faced with a breakdown in negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) this spring, the government has legislated a $340 million reduction in total physician compensation through alterations to the fee schedules that are asynchronous and have inflamed the OMA whose website claims “that the government is putting our health care at risk”.5 The OMA has initiated a process challenging the constitutionality of the government’s actions.
The debate seems crystallized. Does a government, faced with an overpowering deficit, have the right to (some would argue the responsibility to) legislate fiscal control of escalating costs; or does it have the responsibility to, in all instances, allow the collective bargaining processes to conclude, regardless of the result? One could argue, that with human resource costs far and away dominating the financial picture in the public sector, without bold legislative action, our government would proceed down a course of provincial bankruptcy. One does not have to look too hard to find examples of where spiraling public costs are threatening the very viability of many nations; Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece, to name a few.
On the other hand, for decades teachers and doctors have been able to negotiate wage settlements that for the most part have left Ontario in a good shape with respect to its human resource complement and the public well served with respect to the quality of both the education and health care that is delivered.
It is certainly hard to understand how the recent confrontational approach will result in anything but ongoing conflict. It would be my personal opinion that we need movement on both sides: significant movement. Our public sector unions, and in the case of doctors, our OMA, need to appreciate that our current situation mandates processes that are not just “business as usual”. Our government, on the other hand, can’t really believe that unilateral imposition of wage freezes and pay cuts is a model that is sustainable for our future. Both sides need transformative movement on many issues.
If you have views on this issue, please respond to this blog, or better yet…please stop by the Macklem House, my door is always open.