By Robert Benzie
Toronto Star, August 26, 2010
Secret wage-freeze talks between the provincial government and unions representing tens of thousands of health-care and education workers have quietly collapsed, the Star has learned. Sources said the “seven days a week, night and day” negotiations that began Aug. 9 at the Fairmont Royal York hotel fizzled out last Sunday when the sole remaining union walked away from the bargaining table.
About a dozen unions, including the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had been participating in the discussions, which were held under a gag order. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is seeking a two-year wage freeze concession from more than 1 million public service workers in order to help the government tackle its $19.7-billion budget deficit.
While Duncan announced the restraint measure in his March budget and met with labour leaders last month to tout the belt-tightening, the Liberals have kept a tight lid on the fact discussions are even being held. Insiders say suites and a ballroom at the hotel were booked for the round-the-clock talks that started more than two weeks ago with no fanfare and are supposed to conclude Sept. 9.
“The process was confusing and it was unclear what was actually on the agenda, in terms of sectors,” one participant said Wednesday. It was so bad that the CAW – which represents about 20,000 health-care workers, mostly in long-term care homes, and 2,500 university workers – stormed out on Aug. 10, just one day into the negotiations.
On Aug. 18, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents 65,000 academic staff across the country, advised Queen’s Park that it was also abandoning the process. “We … do not accept the government’s premise that compensation is the cause of the current financial situation,” according to an internal memo from the association to the government. “Nor its determination, made even before commencing its consultation process, that a two-year wage freeze singling out public sector employees is the only way to deal with the province’s fiscal situation,” the missive continued.