Ontario unions reject wage freeze plan

Public sector unions in Canada’s most populous province reject Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s call for a two-year wage freeze. The question remains: what will workers and their unions do to stop Duncan and the Liberal government at Queen’s Park from imposing a freeze, along with cuts to public services?

Duncan insists that reducing the province’s $19.7 billion deficit is a priority. Since salaries account for 55 per cent of all government programme spending, for him the target seems obvious – the very same point he made in his March 25 budget. But the facts he ignored then, still remain. CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn hit the mark when he asked how the government “can square the circle of giving a corporate tax cut that will equal $4.6 billion out of the economy” and then tell workers to accept less pay. And what about the bail-out money Ontario gave to manufacturers and resource firms since the 2008 crash, to say nothing about sky-high CEO salaries funded by the province, and the permanent tax holiday enjoyed by speculators and the rich?

OPSEU president Smokey Thomas set the right tone in a message to his 125,000 members on July 20 when he wrote “Do not assume that you must accept zeros. Do not assume you can only bargain “non-monetary” items… We negotiate strong contracts when our members are ready to back their bargaining teams.”

Thomas went on to address the economic crisis: “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… 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… 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.”

Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan called the proposed wage freeze “a horrible idea”, but the tone he set for fighting it was, at best, confused. “We’re not even close” to discussing any sort of general strike or other job action, he told the Toronto Star. It would have been better for Ryan to echo the pledge of Smokey Thomas, “to take whatever action is necessary”, or just to keep quiet. Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s comment was less than helpful too when she said it is important to ensure that Bay Street shares the same pain as Main Street. Shifting the pain, rather than sharing it, is what working people really need.

Doing ‘whatever is necessary’ will definitely require extensive political education and massive job action. No one union, not even the entire public sector on its own, can win alone. There are lessons to absorb from the private sector, including where unions don’t cave, but fight back. Despite a valiant, year-long strike by 3,100 United Steelworkers against Brazilian mining giant Vale SA, workers gave concessions on pensions for new hires. The traditional bonus tied to the price of nickel is also reduced in a five-year deal that does contain wage improvements. Clearly, it would have been much worse had the miners not struck. But the point is that Labour as a whole should have actively joined the fight – instead of postponing the day of reckoning and further weakening the movement.

United, mass job action against the Duncan wage freeze, against the social and environmental cuts, against military expenditures, against the G20 austerity agenda is urgently needed. That is the concept that should be on the table everywhere in time for Labour Day, September 6, 2010. -Barry Weisleder