Public Values

Unhappy days may be here again

"Dalton Days" floated in Ontario, but no one suggests the obvious alternative of raising corporate taxes.

Premier wants new social contract, cuts to public sector as way to avoid large deficitby Mike Martin

In the 1990s the New Democratic government of Ontario led by then Premier Bob Rae was dealing with a massive deficit and pressure from the money lenders and money changers to do something about it. What Rae decided to do was to try and enter into a Social Contract with public sector unions to seek their agreement and support to help reduce the deficit.

The Social Contract talks went smoothly at the beginning but soon the union leaders realized that the process would require them to freeze pay raises and ask their members to take off the equivalent of twelve unpaid days a year. Realizing that their members would not take kindly to this approach the union leaders balked and the Social Contract became a non-starter. Rae and the NDP government then proceeded unilaterally to impose the restrictions on collective bargaining and implemented the unpaid days which became widely known as Rae Days.

This was a pivotal break between the NDP government and its allies in the public sector movement who were joined by some of their private sector friends, including the Canadian Auto Workers, in publicly condemning the move. Many believe that the Social Contract and the Rae Days were the tipping point in support for the NDP government and led to the election of Conservative Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution in 1995. To almost everybody who was thinking straight at the time, the Rae Days were wrong in principle and in practice. They made scapegoats out of people like nurses, teachers and firefighters who had done little to create the problem but were being forced to shoulder and pay for the blame.

These were gut-wrenching times for both the labour movement and their political friends. In the 1990s I was then Assistant to the National President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and we had just fought the Mulroney Conservatives in a national strike over public service wage controls. I never thought that we would have the same battle with an NDP government. Like many in the union movement I was torn between my principles and my political party. I remember being at an OFL Convention and turning my back on Bob Rae for betraying both of them. All because of a bad idea that ended up turning friends into adversaries.

  "The Liberals were re-elected in 2007 with strong support from teachers, nurses and some other public sector unions."

But bad ideas like history have a way of repeating themselves and on November 3, 2009, the now Premier of Ontario Liberal Dalton McGuinty refused to rule out the possibility that once again Ontario public sector workers would be forced to take unpaid leave days to help reduce the deficit. While his Finance Minister Dwight Duncan seemed to back away a little from the threat in recent days mumbling about having to get legal advice etc, many believe the possibility of the resurrection of Rae Days, now appropriately dubbed Dalton Days to be a very real possibility.

Reaction to the news from labour leaders was swift and severe. Wayne Samuelson, President of the Ontario Federation of Labour said that it was the wrong way to go and called it one of the biggest political betrayals that he's seen in a decade in the province of Ontario. The 42,000 member Ontario Public Service Employees Union indicated that there was no way their union membership would go for another round of unpaid leave or wage freezes and Sid Ryan, Ontario President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, reminded Dalton McGuinty of what happened to the last premier who tried to make public sector workers take the fall for government overspending.

While the unions are still plotting their strategies to fight back against any introduction of Dalton Days, the proposal does raise moral, legal, and political questions for the Liberals in Ontario. On the moral front McGuinty seems to be raising this issue as one of the few alternatives to even more drastic cuts in social spending and public sector employment. It is true that it is an alternative but it is not the only one and probably not the most effective. Reducing the wages of public sector workers through freezes, rollbacks or Dalton Days would save some money but it is a drop in the bucket compared to other ideas like raising corporate taxes which do not seem to be even on the table.

Legally, the McGuinty government is also on shaky ground. In 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a BC proposal of Rae Days was unconstitutional, so their hands may be tied in rolling back any existing contracts or benefits. The unions have certainly indicated that they wouldn't hesitate to take the Liberals to court, where they would likely be successful, should they try this route to fight the deficit.

Finally, on the political front, the McGuinty government is already in some trouble over a series of mini-scandals involving out of control spending at several Crown Corporations like e-Health Ontario and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. There is a new Conservative leader who is pushing them hard from the right and a resurgent NDP under new leader Andrea Horwath. The Liberals were re-elected in 2007 with strong support from teachers, nurses and some other public sector unions. Without this support, which is unlikely if Dalton Days come to fruition, the Liberals might see themselves booted back to the Opposition benches.

Everyone across Canada who cares about public services will be tuned to Ontario to see how this issue gets resolved. At we will be following this debate as it unfolds in the public and behind the scenes.

Watch for an interview soon with Sid Ryan, CUPE Ontario President, and candidate for the presidency of the Ontario Federation of Labour which takes place November 23-27 in Toronto.

Mike Martin is a former activist and senior staff member with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and a freelance writer and consultant specializing in workplace wellness.

Posted: November 16, 2009

  Public services
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