Liberals warn teachers, doctors over pay
TheStar.com – news/canada/politics – Ontario Budget:
Published On Thu Apr 12 2012. Rob Ferguson, Tanya Talaga and Kristin Rushowy, Staff Reporters
Mired in debt and at risk of an election by late May, Ontario’s minority Liberal government took dead aim at teachers and doctors Thursday in a bid for public support to keep their wage hike demands to zero.
Education Minister Laurel Broten warned elementary teachers of 10,000 layoffs unless they accept a pay freeze while Health Minister Deb Matthews told physicians “I am here to stand up for taxpayers.”
There is no room in Premier Dalton McGuinty’s latest budget — which forecasts a $15.2 billion deficit this year — for salary increases, Matthews told a hastily arranged news conference.
“This is a tough time. This is a difficult budget,” she said shortly after Broten delivered her second stern message since Monday, when she slammed the elementary teachers’ union for walking away from provincial bargaining.
Teacher contracts expire in August and the latest OMA agreement was over at the end of March.
The government’s future hangs in the balance over the budget, which goes to a crucial confidence vote in the Legislature by April 25. Defeat would force an election by the end of May.
The 76,000-member Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Medical Association took quick exception to the two-pronged surprise attack.
Teacher union president Sam Hammond said the government’s “destructive” demands ask “too much of teachers and singles them out” in a bare-knuckled political play that will harm students.
“The number one priority for Ontario’s doctors has and continues to be patients,” added OMA president Dr. Stewart Kennedy.
He had warned in a Wednesday evening memo to his 26,000 members that plans to curtail growth in health spending will limit access to health care as Ontario’s population grows and ages.
Matthews said that note — which raised what she called misleading concerns about “an effective reduction in payments per physician of almost 16 per cent over four years” — prompted her lecture.
“I will not look Ontario patients in the eye and tell them they have to make do with less community care because we are going to put that money in the pockets of doctors who are already earning an average of $362,000 a year,” Matthews said.
Ontario is not getting value for money in some medical procedures — such as cataracts — because new technology has vastly improved how quickly doctors can perform them, so fees should come down, she argued.
Broten’s remarks followed another refusal by ETFO, the only teacher union that has walked away from talks, to return to the province-wide negotiating table after one hour of preliminary work weeks ago.
“It’s through the provincial process that we’re looking to protect the gains we’ve made — specifically the implementation of full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes,” she said in a statement to the Star.
“If we give up on those gains we would see the loss of 10,000 teaching positions — many of them at the elementary level. I’m not willing to let that happen. I’m surprised ETFO is. I know how hard it is for young teachers to find jobs and those are the teachers whose jobs would be at risk.”
The province has told all teacher unions it wants to freeze their wages as well as their salary grid — which gives additional raises based on seniority and qualifications — and do away with costly sick-day payouts at retirement. The government also wants to limit sick days to six and ban them from being carried over.
Lori Lukinuk of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said her group realizes “significant cost savings” must be found given Ontario’s fiscal situation, with the government struggling to balance the budget by spring 2018 and avoid a costly credit downgrade.
However, “the interests of our students must remain the first priority for all parties — there can be no disruption to their education. This is what parents expect of us and what students deserve,” the association added.
The Progressive Conservatives said McGuinty would be better off following their idea of a mandatory public sector wage freeze — not the current course of threatening to legislate one if unions fail to heel.
“If the Liberals were really serious about achieving a wage freeze they would legislate one for the entire public sector immediately, instead of doubling down on the same policies that have failed so miserably in the past,” said Tory finance critic Peter Shurman (Thornhill).
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