Tim Hudak says Northwestern Ontario municipalities can no longer afford southern Ontario arbitration settlements when negotiating government worker contracts.
And the Progressive Conservative leader has the full support of Mayor Keith Hobbs and Coun. Joe Virdiramo, also the president of the Police Services Board.
Hudak, whose party plans to introduce the Ability to Pay Act at Queen’s Park, pointed to Thunder Bay’s settlement last year with local firefighters, a deal seven years in the making that pushed a huge chunk of Thunder Bay Fire and Rescue workers onto Ontario annual sunshine list.
“The bottom line is any agreements have to reflect not circumstances in southern Ontario, but circumstances here in Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario,” said Hudak, who made a brief stop Friday in Thunder Bay, meeting with the mayor to discuss the legislation.
He wants arbitrators to realize that communities like Thunder Bay, Kenora and Dryden don’t always have the money in place that places like Kitchener, Toronto or Ottawa might and the results can be devastating to taxpayers. In Thunder Bay alone the industrial tax base shrunk 40 per cent between 1998 and 2011.
Hudak also wants to impose a three-month timeframe to get an arbitration deal done, rather than dragging it out like the case of the local firefighters, who are now two years without a deal in place.
“That helps mayors and councils plan, it helps taxpayers plan and it’s fair to the union workers themselves because they know they’ve got some stability and predictability,” he said.
Finally he wants to create an ability to pay department, which would compile relevant employment and economic factors for each community and hand that information to the arbitrators to allow for objective, community-based decisions.
Virdiramo said it’s win-win for everyone.
But while he believes a fair wage for police, firefighters and municipal workers is a must, he also said economic factors must be taken into consideration, which is why he’s supporting the proposed legislation.
“Municipalities’ ability to pay must be taken into consideration. We don’t have an open bank account. We have to raise taxes to pay for the agreements that we settle,” he said. “This is a good thing. Workers lives are not suspended. They know that within a certain period of time there will be an agreement.”
Hobbs stressed the City of Thunder Bay and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario isn’t supporting the withdrawal of collective bargaining rights, but fully backs Hudak’s plan.
“We’re all on the same page on this issue. We do support this legislation because we have to get handle on this once and for all,” said Hobbs, the former president of the Thunder Bay Police Association.
“There’s so much piggybacking that goes on and I know that from a police perspective.
“When Toronto and the OPP settled other municipalities piggybacked on them … We have gone through one of the worst economic times in our history and yet huge wages were given out. The OPP settlement was a prime example, and I railed on the premier for it last year.”
MP Bill Mauro (Liberal, Thunder Bay-Atikokan) said Hudak is being a bit hypocritical by saying the government has taken no action along these lines. Mauro said the Liberals had the same type of legislation included in their most recent budget, but Hudak and the Conservatives conspired with the NDP to have it removed before agreeing to pass the document.
"He's trying to have his cake and eat it too," Mauro said.
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