TORONTO - Opposition politicians accused Premier Dalton McGuinty of injecting himself into the middle of negotiations aimed at heading off a Toronto transit strike by saying Friday that the Ontario government would consider declaring the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service.
With transit workers set to strike Monday morning, stranding about 1.5 million commuters in the Toronto area, McGuinty changed his earlier opposition to declaring the TTC an essential service and said he would look at the idea if the city wanted to remove the workers' right to strike.
"It may be that the city of Toronto wants to approach us with such a request... (and) that is something that we would consider," he said. "Torontonians themselves will have to decide that they want something done, and they'd have to approach us. That hasn't happened."
While McGuinty was musing about declaring the TTC an essential service sometime in the next three years - after the current labour dispute is settled - the Conservatives and New Democrats blasted him for talking during such a crucial point of the negotiations.
"There's no question that the TTC is crucial... to the economy of Toronto and the economy of Ontario," said Conservative Leader John Tory. "I think this is the wrong time to embark on a discussion on whether you should change the existing regime and make the TTC an essential service."
NDP critic Peter Kormos went even further, accusing McGuinty of trying to orchestrate a TTC strike for Monday.
"It was regrettable and indeed unfortunate that the premier would inject himself into these negotiations in that manner," said Kormos. "Mr. McGuinty may well be engineering a strike and he should not have imposed his views in that way."
McGuinty wouldn't talk about possible back-to-work legislation if the transit workers do go out Monday, but he did signal that the province would not tolerate a strike for long - noting previous governments quickly ordered an end to TTC strikes.
"I think if you check the record, you'll see what governments have traditionally done, but I'm not going to speculate as to the outcome of negotiations during the course of the weekend," he said.
Kormos again said McGuinty was out of line.
"That is an irresponsible comment on the part of the premier and it doesn't help the parties in negotiating a resolution. Mr. McGuinty should not have said that; he ought to know better," Kormos said.
"If Mr. McGuinty wanted to do the right thing he'd be on the phone to both parties, restoring the province's 50 per cent of operational costs for the TTC."
McGuinty said there's still hope that negotiators can hammer out an agreement before the Sunday afternoon deadline the TTC's union set for a Monday morning strike.
The 8,900 drivers and maintenance workers plan to start shutting down the city's buses, streetcars and subways immediately following a 4 p.m. Sunday deadline if an acceptable offer isn't tabled.
Amalgamated Transit Union boss Bob Kinnear warned recently that union members, who have been in a legal strike position since April 1, were impatient with the slow pace of bargaining.
One of the key issues is a full-pay provision for injured or sick employees unable to report to work, but money is also said to still be a sticking point.