Fixing Ontario’s broken arbitration system

By MPP Toby Barrett

Municipal representatives working to hold the line on spending and avoid deficit pitfalls are often held back by a broken provincial arbitration system.
A Government of Ontario website defines “arbitration” as “a quasi-judicial process in which a disinterested third-party (an arbitrator or arbitration board) hears evidence presented by both the union and the employer on issues in dispute, and hands down a binding decision.”
The problem is often those binding decisions for municipalities and their essential services create costs beyond the local councils’ means, forcing some to increase property taxes, impose user fees or cut services to pay for these contracts – all at the taxpayers’ expense.

* In Windsor, where they’ve been waiting since 2006 for a final decision on their negotiations with firefighters, an arbitrator awarded the firefighters’ union a $7.3 million “interim” wage increase of nearly 13 per cent.
* In Owen Sound, firefighters received a total wage hike of more than 10 per cent in a three year contract.
* The Mayor’s coalition – including Norfolk’s Mayor – penned a letter in May advising that, “some municipalities policing costs have doubled in the past five years alone. …The matter becomes worse for small urban and rural municipalities as they must rely on the Ontario Provincial Police model that limits their control even more than those municipalities who have their own force”

The fact is with a million-plus employees, and one out of every three workers considered an essential service, Ontario’s salary and benefit costs make up more than half of all budget expenditures. Further, while the economy is barely growing, many unionized public servants continue to receive pay and benefit increases.

After years of watching the Ontario government ignore the growing problem, it’s high time to fix a broken system that awards unaffordable contract settlements to unionized government employees. The recently proposed Ability to Pay Act from the Official Opposition is our attempt to do just that.

Our legislation does three key things to reverse this trend and rein in arbitrated government employee settlements:

* First, all arbitrators’ decisions must consider specific economic and budgetary factors – like the taxpayers’ ability to pay – when making decisions and explain how they did this in writing as per Don Drummond’s recommendation to “require arbitrators to provide clear reasons for their decisions.”
* Second, we would establish a panel of independent arbitrators to decide public sector cases within three months.
* And third, an ‘Ability to Pay Division’, funded through existing resources, would be responsible for publishing comparative information on compensation a principle I called for in my Private Member’s Bill this spring. As well all arbitration decisions must be proactively disclosed.

The Ability to Pay Act is about standing up for taxpayers and restoring economic prosperity. We need all parties in the Legislature to get behind this bill so we can help rein in overspending and build a solid foundation for municipal and provincial government service display.

I look forward to fulsome debate and a successful vote on October 4th at Queen’s Park to make this bill law. The McGuinty government needs to do the right thing, stand up for taxpayers’ and vote to fix the broken arbitration system in Ontario.