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Firefighters should help freeze wages, says McGuinty

March 30, 2010, Toronto - All public-sector workers in Ontario — including municipal police and firefighters who escaped last week's wage-freeze edict — need to do their part to slay Ontario's massive deficits, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Sunday.

March 30, 2010
By The Canadian Press

In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, McGuinty promised
to stand firm on freezing the wages of more than one million workers
over the next few years, even if the economy rebounds.

"It
doesn't really matter when or where it happens, but it's going to
happen," he said in his first one-on-one interview since last
Thursday's $126-billion budget.

"Everybody in the public service understands that we need to be fair on this score."

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The
document projected a whopping $110 billion in deficit spending over
eight years and outlined a plan to curb public-sector compensation –
which accounts for more than half of government spending – as Ontario
struggles to rebalance the books in 2017-18.

About 350,000
non-unionized public-sector workers will have their wages frozen
immediately, while another 710,000 unionized workers will see their
compensation capped for two years after their existing contracts expire.

Only
municipalities were excluded, but McGuinty is urging them to do the
same, and for police and firefighters to help make it happen.

"I
think they all need to ask themselves: 'What do we need to do to help?
What role can we play? How can we be part of the solution? How can we
demonstrate that we understand that the recession has had consequences
on the ability of taxpayers to pay for services (and) on the ability of
the government to deliver those services?'

"I'm confident that there's a lot of goodwill and, as I say, people want to be part of the solution."

Labour
experts and municipal leaders point out that unionized workers have a
right to go to arbitration, which makes a wage freeze unlikely.

Most
police and firefighter contracts are settled by arbitration, not
negotiation, according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario,
which represents most of the 444 towns and cities in the province.

Unless
the governing Liberals change the rules to get around arbitration,
municipal leaders say there's little chance they can freeze wages.

Public-sector
unions are already girding for battle with the government over the wage
freeze, which they warn has set the stage for labour unrest.

McGuinty
wouldn't say if was prepared to introduce legislation to imposed the
salary freeze, but suggested that workers will accept it, given that
his government didn't impose layoffs or slash work hours, benefits or
pensions.

"I think given the options that we've considered and
where we've come down, I think people think it's responsible, it's the
right thing to do, it's the fair thing to do," he said.

The wage
freeze is expected to save the government about $750 million, which it
plans to redirect towards schools, hospitals and other public services.

About
750 public-sector agreements will come up for negotiation over the next
year, including nurses and those working in universities and colleges.
Contracts for teachers, doctors and civil servants won't expire until
2012.

The timing should help the Liberals avoid any major labour unrest until after the next provincial election in October 2011.

Opposition
critics have savaged the 2010 budget as a blueprint for reckless
spending that will double Ontario's debt and threaten its cherished
public services.

But McGuinty said the budget balanced the need
to invest in jobs and growth for future generations with the need to
manage the province's finances.

"We're making those investments
today, and some of those investments obviously are coming at the cost
of prolonged deficit and a higher debt level," he said.

"But that
not only benefits us, it benefits our kids and grandkids as well. But
we also owe them a responsible plan to eliminate this deficit, and
that's what we have in place."