TORONTO — Passing legislation that puts a cap on wage increases for public service workers while teachers are in the middle of already tense contract negotiations has angered their unions, who are threatening legal action.
Bill 124, which caps public sector wage increases to one per cent over the next three years, became law Thursday evening. Hours later, the four major unions representing high school, elementary, Catholic and French teachers in the province issued a joint statement condemning it and warning they are preparing a court challenge.
"It puts the lie to the minister's claim that he was interested in negotiating in good faith," Harvey Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said Friday. "This is the exact opposite of that. It is corrosive of trust and any attempt to come to creative solutions that both sides can support."
High school teachers could be in a legal strike position later this month, teachers in the English Catholic system are in the process of holding strike votes, and elementary teachers announced Friday that they will be in a legal strike position on Nov. 25.
Salary negotiations are typically a central part of such bargaining, but the new law now limits any increases to one per cent a year for the next three years. Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy called it a "fair and time-limited approach" to eliminating the $9-billion deficit.
"It doesn't impinge on the process to collectively bargain," he said Friday. "It doesn't impose any wage freezes. It allows for an increase. It's not a rollback."
Bischof countered that any "artificial restriction" on what can be achieved at the negotiating table interferes in collective bargaining.
Although the bill passed Thursday evening, it is retroactive to June 5, when it was first announced.
More than a million public sector workers would be affected by the bill, which applies to employees at school boards, universities and colleges, hospitals, long-term care homes and other organizations.
The United Steelworkers, which represents thousands of public-sector workers, particularly in the university sector, called the legislation "regressive" and said it targets middle- and low-income workers. The union agreed with the teachers that it violates workers' constitutional rights.
The teachers' unions won a court challenge several years ago against the Liberal government. Legislation known as Bill 115 froze some of their wages and limited their ability to strike, and the judge ruled that the government "substantially interfered with meaningful collective bargaining."
Ontario was left having to pay more than $100 million in remedies to the unions.
Bethlenfalvy suggested that experience wasn't really a factor in putting together his legislation.
"I think what we did was say, 'Let's put something together that makes sense,'" he said. "It wasn't designed with any sort of look back or look forward. It was just, what is a reasonable thing to do, given the circumstances we have."
The government said the wage cap bill respects the bargaining process, and noted that it still allows for employees to get raises for seniority, performance or increased qualifications.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2019.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press