TORONTO -- Ontario introduced legislation Wednesday to limit wage increases for public sector workers, including teachers and nurses -- a move major unions said could derail ongoing contract negotiations, spark protests and give rise to a court challenge.
The bill would cap wage increases to an average of one per cent a year for three years for the broader public sector.
Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy called it a "fair and time-limited approach" as the Progressive Conservative government works to eliminate an $11.7 billion deficit.
"This is really good news for our public sector workers because we are protecting jobs today," he said.
"Our government values the important role that all public sector workers play in delivering programs and services to the people of Ontario. Our province's fiscal reality means we must be honest about ensuring sustainability of government programs and services."
The legislation applies to employees at school boards, universities and colleges, hospitals, long-term care homes, Ornge air ambulance service, children's aid societies, broader public sector organizations, and boards and commissions that receive at least $1 million in provincial funding. It doesn't apply to municipalities, including their fire and police services.
More than one million broader public sector employees would be affected by the bill, which was introduced the day before the legislature is set to rise for a summer break.
Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, raised the possibility of a charter challenge, saying the legislation violated unions' ability to bargain collectively.
He also said unions are already preparing to protest.
"I think they're going to have a long hot summer," he said. "My union and others, we'll target all those Tory MPPs and their constituency offices, all their fundraisers, all their golf tournaments, all their barbecues -- we'll screw every one of them up."
The government's legislation comes after the province recently started the bargaining process with the largest teachers' unions ahead of an Aug. 31 contract expiry.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said he was at the bargaining table Wednesday, but learned of the legislation on Twitter. Harvey Bischof said he will now have to assess if bargaining will continue.
"It's a complete undermining of the good faith bargaining process," he said. "You can't sit down and negotiate when they hang legislation over your head. That's not coming to mutual agreement. They are in the process of creating instability in the system by taking this approach."
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario filed its notice to bargain just two days prior, and said the government is using the legislation to bully its members into a certain outcome.
The province began wage consultations with the public sector in April, but unions are calling those talks a "sham."
Recent public sector wage increases have averaged 1.6 per cent a year and the average employee makes $64,000, government officials said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government should negotiate at the bargaining table, not impose terms through legislation.
"(Premier) Doug Ford is acting like he's the king of Ontario, taking drastic action without any attempt to negotiate...in a respectful manner," she said. "He's taking aim at working people in our province, at the people who educate our kids, keep our roads safe and work in our hospitals taking care of loved ones."
The legislation would apply for three years upon the expiration of a collective agreement and doesn't affect current agreements. Thomas said most of the major deals with his union, including the public sector, don't expire for several years.
The bill would not prevent merit-based raises, or increases for years of service or if an employee completes a program or other professional certification.