TORONTO - Ontario's Liberal government has raised the idea of unpaid days off for public sector workers to deal with a record $24.7-billion deficit - so-called Dalton Days - but there are differing opinions on whether or not the province would be able to re-open existing contracts.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said last week that the province's nurses, teachers and other public sector workers had been "sheltered" from the impacts of the global recession, which has been blamed for the loss of more than 200,000 private sector jobs in Ontario.

McGuinty said the government wants to open consultations with its unions to talk about their role in eliminating the deficit, and won't announce any new measures until next spring's provincial budget.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union and the Ontario Nurses Association say the Liberals cannot try a repeat of former NDP premier Bob Rae's social contract, which forced workers to take up to 12 unpaid days off, which were dubbed Rae Days.

"The world has changed since then and now I know we've got the full force of the law behind us," said CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan.

"There's got to be proper consultations, dialogue and there has to be negotiations."

The unions point to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling which found that the collective bargaining process is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it threw out sections of a British Columbia law that re-opened contracts for hospital workers.

The social contract as written in 1993 would be struck down by the court today, said OPSEU's Randy Robinson.

"It won't be a repeat of the social contract that Bob Rae brought in 16 years ago," said Robinson.

The government knows Ontario is already facing a nursing shortage, and forcing nurses to take time off in 1993 ended up costing more because replacements had to be called in on overtime, said Linda Haslam-Stroud, president of the ONA.

"The Supreme Court ruling certainly supports us on the front lines as nurses in relation to them opening the contract," said Haslam-Stroud.

However, the issue "is not black and white," said labour lawyer Kevin Coon at Baker and McKenzie LLP in Toronto.

"The high court left the door open where a government is in consultation in good faith, and the matter that's being changed does not substantially interfere in the collective bargaining process. The door is still open to that issue," said Coon.

"The whole question to what extent governments can make legislative changes to matters that have been collectively bargained is an open question."

The government could make changes to union contracts even if the members disagree, as long as it consults in good faith, said Coon.

"Certainly the Supreme Court of Canada decision clearly speaks to that issue and has left that as a possibility in terms of making those kind of changes," he said.

Haslam-Stroud said the nurses will tell McGuinty that they will publicly fight any unilateral cuts imposed by the government, even if they are made after consulting with the unions.

"I think he's kind of floated that, despite the Supreme Court ruling," she said.

"If they have the discussion and then legislate, we nurses will be loud and clear that it would impact our patients, and our patient's care would suffer as a result."

The Liberal government, especially McGuinty, had built up a lot of goodwill with public sector unions as he helped restore services following the dramatic cuts under the previous Conservative government of Mike Harris, added Coon.

That's only partly true, said Ryan, who added Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was more adamant about the need for cutbacks when he spoke the day after McGuinty about ways to tackle the deficit.

"It's almost like a good-cop, bad-cop with these guys, or maybe the feel the response on Wednesday from labour wasn't strenuous enough and they're trying to poke us with a stick or something," he said.

"I'm not sure what their game is, but increasingly their comments are a little more vitriolic."

Ryan and OPSEU president Smokey Thomas have written to all public sector unions, and private sector unions like the Canadian Auto Workers that represent some public workers, calling on them to develop joint strategies before they meet with the government.

"Given the fragile state of the economy, discussion of Dalton Days and laying off workers could have the effect of undermining the fiscal stimulus Ontario's economy depends on right now," Ryan said.

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