By Robert Washburn
As the provincial Tories ratchet up the war against unions, it recently co-opted municipal leaders to spearhead a new front against one of its most stubborn adversaries – the municipal public service.
Cobourg Mayor Gil Brocanier joined with municipal leaders from across Eastern Ontario to endorse legislation, if passed, would limit pay increases to police officers, firefighters and ambulance workers.
While these groups are the most high-profile targets of the proposed legislation, it will also impact other unionized municipal workers, as well, from garbage collectors to road repair crews to the receptionist at town hall.
Bill 44, the Public Sector Capacity to Pay Act 2013, is a private members bill introduced by Progressive Conservative MPP Jim Wilson on March 28. It purpose is to alter the arbitration process for public sector unions by limiting increases based on a municipality’s ability to pay.
Arbitration is a process where an outside government appointed person is called in when a union and employer (in this case the municipality) can’t negotiate an agreement. The theory is the arbitrator is neutral, examines both sides and comes up with a fair, equitable settlement.
Emergency services workers, like police officers and firefighters and other unions who do not have the right to strike, use the arbitration process more frequently since there is such a limited range of job actions.
However, some argue a trend has developed recently where unions will stall in an attempt to force arbitration in the hopes of getting a better settlement.
Some recent provincial arbitration awards have given large increases, such as firefighters in Scugog, who got a 27 per cent increase last year; and a 20 per cent hike was given to firefighters and dispatchers in Stratford recently. Meanwhile, a nearly 11 per cent award was given to police in Windsor in the past year.
The Conservatives are using the usual array of weapons in this battle: humiliation and distortion.
First, the legislation proposes to make public all salary increases within various municipalities by publishing arbitration settlements for municipal employees. Similar to the famous Sunshine List, it is meant to embarrass.
Next, it proposes to compare wage settlements within the public sector and outside industries in an effort to reduce high arbitrations. Does this mean a police officer will be compared to a mall security guard?
It will also ask arbitrators to assume a zero percent tax increase in their decision and not consider future municipal tax increases when justifying a capacity to pay.
Municipal leaders argue these arbitration settlements place huge pressures on local property taxpayers.
The rhetoric is so dangerous when it is not put in context. For example, the increase in Scugog is 27 per cent. It is a shocking figure, no doubt.
But, it was given to first-class firefighters only, so not everyone got it. The final salary was going to be $80,440, up from $63,500. However, it was meant to make up for a four-year period when they did not get any increases.
When all is said and done, it means an extra $2 per hour in salary over that period of time.
But the most revealing moment was when the mayor of Scugog said he must find an extra $30,000 in his budget. The 2012 total budget for the municipality is slightly more than $10 million. To put it in perspective, the township spends more on library books.
Not surprisingly Northumberland MPP Rob Milligan’s, as a good caucus member, is flogging this position in the local media. More appalling is former MPP Lou Rinaldi’s endorsement.
We have already watched the extent the Liberals were willing to go to strip teachers of their rights as workers to negotiate. Not to be outdone, the Tories have gone after the cops and firefighters.
Nobody wants to see an unfair system. But destroying worker’s rights does not solve the problem; it only ends up hurting working people. Premier Kathleen Wynne showed Ontarians the right path in the past few weeks when she sat down with all parties related to the teacher’s union to work out their differences.
She should be given the same chance to meet with unions, municipal leaders and ratepayers groups. And, those blinded by anti-union dogma can stay home.
This is what Brocanier and the Eastern Ontario mayors should be advocating, not crusading against working people’s rights