McGuinty says he needs majority to take hard line against labour

Dalton McGuinty may have handed health care professionals and other public sector workers a reason to vote against the Liberals in upcoming Kitchener-Waterloo byelection.

The seat was recently vacated by Tory health critic Elizabeth Witmer after she accepted an appointment as Chair of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). This despite past conflicts between Witmer and the Liberals over the WSIB.

Should the byelection be won by the Liberals, it would propel the McGuinty government into a defacto majority, the speaker allowed to break tie votes in provincial parliament.

Given the “elegant” compromise with the NDP over the budget, why would McGuinty suddenly need a majority so badly that he would be willing to appoint a long-time opponent to such a sensitive position at WSIB?

According to the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn, McGuinty says he needs the majority “because tough times require a hard line against labour.”

After all the rhetoric about spreading the pain around, we know who McGuinty expects to really pay for the deficit: workers.

This should not come as a surprise from the Premier who was dragged kicking and screaming by his own caucus to accept the NDP’s proposal of a two per cent surtax on individuals earning more than $500,000 per year. This also from a government that was hell-bent to pass on further corporate tax cuts despite any evidence to suggest it was doing anything to boost economic growth.

McGuinty has been hinting for weeks that should bargaining not give him the results he wants, that legislation could be lurking around the corner.

The Liberals have been previously reluctant to legislate a wage freeze given the likelihood it would be overturned in the courts. In 2007 the Supreme Court recognized a limited right of collective bargaining, overturning legislation in BC that overrode provisions in the collective agreements of health care workers.

Don Drummond, the banking guru the McGuinty government looked to in order to find economic salvation, recommended against such a freeze, coyly suggesting that workers will always play catch-up after the freeze is over. Obscurely he suggests McGuinty should instead make zero available for compensation increases, and let public sector employers duke it out with their employees. Of course, we know that this kind of restraint would result in catch-up too.

Things have also changed from the last freeze. Among other things, the Liberals and Tories have contracted considerable public service to private for-profit entities. If McGuinty is struggling to find a way to defeat the aspirations of public sector workers, how does he plan to deal with private sector CEOs of companies whose work is primarily in the public sphere?

While non-profit hospital CEOs faced a legislated two-year wages freeze, and now another two-year extension, the Liberals could bring no such restraint to the likes of Timothy L. Lukenda, CEO of Extendicare Health Services, the largest provider of provincially-funded for-profit long-term care beds in the province. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Lukenda earned $1,358,862 in total compensation in 2011. Bloomberg insists that is low by industry standards, even though it is nearly twice the highest paid hospital CEO in the province.

Of course, none of these for-profit CEOs make the sunshine list – for-profits delivering public service are exempt, as are not-for-profits that receive their funding more indirectly, such as the VON or St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

As negotiations with doctors and teachers have shown, McGuinty is looking for more than a wage freeze.

For the teachers, he is also looking to freeze movement on the wage grid and clawback other benefits. Wage grids are intended to reflect the increased value experience brings to the job.

For the doctors, the McGuinty government intends to expand access to care but hold the line at $11 billion in total compensation. The docs have already offered a two-year freeze on fees, but insist there should be additional money for the 700 more doctors expected to practice this year – docs they say are needed to meet the demands of a growing and aging population. The OMA says the McGuinty government is really seeking $1 billion in fee cuts.

It’s been an almost daily ritual of Health Minister Deb Matthews to bash the docs as greedy, even if they aren’t asking for personal compensation increases. The government insists Ontario docs are the best paid, while the Ontario Medical Association notes the government’s fee schedule ranks 7th in the country.

According to the Globe and Mail, 1,296 contracts covering 335,678 public sector workers expire this year. That’s about a third of the public sector.

“There are some things we shied away from doing because they were too controversial, might engender too much political animosity,” McGuinty told Toronto Star columnist Cohn. “But we now need to do those kinds of things.”

For all three parties, there is a major stake in the outcome of the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection. McGuinty has just laid the table for labour to get a pony into this battle too.

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