Consultation is key to public sector reform

By MPP Toby Barrett
Recently, I introduced legislation to open up debate on public sector compensation.

Bill 94 stresses the requirement for meaningful consultation and negotiation among all parties, while moving forward on proposals to: limit public servants’ compensation to economic growth; limit collective agreements to one year; and introduce the concept of a wage board to research private vs. public comparables. The legislation also proposes concepts of unpaid furlough and defined contribution pensions.

While private sector unemployment has reached half-a-million people, public sector salaries have increased 46 per cent. As well, over the last 10 years, the number of government workers in health and social services have gone up by 39 per cent, and in education – up by 34 per cent. Over 17 per cent of jobs in Ontario are provincial public sector jobs.

The legislation, Addressing Ontario’s Debt Through Alternatives to Public Sector Layoffs and Program Cuts Act, 2012, provides options to tackling runaway spending that has us staring down the barrel of a $411.4 billion debt – over half of which is payroll. The bill stresses government’s responsibility to fully consult and negotiate with public sector workers on legislative changes to collective bargaining and compensation.

Government’s obligation to consultation and negotiation is key, given recent Supreme Court decisions that have re-inforced the laws of the land when it comes to government-directed changes to public sector compensation.

One such ruling was delivered in 2007 with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision relating to the passage of the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act by the B.C. Legislature. The Act, which was adopted to help address some of the fiscal challenges facing the BC health care system, overrode several key provisions in the collective agreements.

Following a union challenge, a majority of the Supreme Court held that the Charter “protects the capacity of members of labour unions to engage, in association, in collective bargaining on fundamental workplace issues.” Government employees, according to the Supreme Court, have the “right to unite, to present demands to . . . employers collectively” and to work together to pursue workplace goals. Government employers have a corresponding duty to listen to, and discuss, workplace concerns.

The 2007 decision was followed by a 2011 judgment in Ontario (Attorney General) v. Fraser in 2011, which narrowed the government’s obligations to guarantee a process of collective bargaining.

Throughout these, and subsequent decisions, it is important to note that government is not prevented from limiting collective bargaining or overriding existing collective agreements. Rather, any attempts to do so must include consultation and negotiation in good faith.

Don Drummond’s report also addressed both the need and advantage of proper negotiations – especially given the recent Supreme Court decisions. Drummond notes that, “negotiated settlements…between parties…with the right to strike/lockout are superior.” Adding that, “the parties are best positioned to understand the trade-offs that allow them to optimize in negotiations.”

With regard to recent legal rulings, Drummond indicates, “that the two decisions stress the importance of consultation when governments seek to achieve their desired industrial relations outcomes.” He also advises, “this does note mean change is neither possible nor necessary – just that change must be collaborative and done in good faith.”

I invite continued discussion on the proposals in my Private Members Bill in the run up to 2nd reading debate June 7th.