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CP Exclusive: Cops, firefighters should help freeze wages, says McGuinty

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.

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.

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."

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 balances 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."