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Posted on 11-09-2010 under Uncategorized

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http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/887792–raises-ordered-for-16-000-health-care-workers-despite-pay-freeze?bn=1#article

Raises ordered for 16,000 health-care workers despite pay freeze

An independent arbitrator has awarded pay raises to about 16,000 unionized nurses and other hospital workers in spite of the Liberal government’s public-sector wage freeze, the Star has learned.

Dozens of hospitals — including Mount Sinai, North York General, Sunnybrook, and Toronto East General — have been ordered to give Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members 2 per cent annual increases over two years.

This flies in the face of Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s March budget, which urged a two-year freeze on wages for 1.06 million nurses, teachers, bureaucrats, and other public servants to alleviate the $19.7 billion deficit.

“While there is no doubt that this province has fallen upon difficult economic times, we must consider the full range of relevant economic indicators as they impact upon collectively bargained terms and conditions of employment,” wrote arbitrator Kevin Burkett.

“Government pronouncements of intent with respect to future funding are not, in and of themselves, sufficient to override what would otherwise be the content of an arbitrated award,” continued Burkett.

“A legislated directive would be required for this to happen,” he said, adding a precedent was set when hospital staffers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Auto Workers received 2 per cent annual hikes prior to the budget.

Burkett said SEIU members would be “at a significant disadvantage” to their coworkers in other unions if they weren’t treated the same.

But Duncan insisted the province, which has already passed legislation for a two-year pay freeze on 350,000 non-unionized public servants, cannot afford such settlements.

“We won’t be transferring additional funds to accommodate them. That’s just the bottom line,” the finance minister said in an interview Monday.

“For those that reach non-compliant agreements, they’ll have to find the money elsewhere.”

Duncan said he was concerned by the arbitrators’ language in recent settlements because they are awarding pay increases the cash-strapped government cannot fund.

“What troubles me as the finance minister is that people who are unelected can effectively impact dramatically on costs to the budget. Now, there’s a trade-off — that’s no strikes and so on,” he said.

Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) president and CEO Tom Closson said the government should enact legislation capping what arbitrators can award so there is “equity” between non-unionized and unionized health workers.

“It’s an unlevel playing field,” said Closson.

“We need the government to come up with a plan, because we have an awful lot of frustrated hospital workers,” he said.

The Liberals have refused to impose a wage freeze on union members or reprise former NDP premier Bob Rae’s 1993 reopening of collective agreements with unpaid “Rae Days.”

“It’s a much different legal environment than there was back in the early ’90s,” said Duncan, referring to a 2007 Supreme Court of Canada decision striking down a British Columbia law that dismantled union contracts and stripped job protection for health workers.

Closson, however, said the threat of a constitutional challenge “is a bit over-exaggerated.”

“What happened in British Columbia was a real extreme case where they basically tore up existing collective agreements and privatized everybody and they were all pushed out into the private sector,” the OHA president said.

“That’s very different than imposing a two-year freeze at the end of a collective agreement,” he said.

“If you leave it up to the arbitrators under the current legislation they’re always going to keep increasing (wages).”

SEIU Local 1 president Sharleen Stewart pointed out that the 15,855 employees — 7,876 full-time and 7,979 part-time — earn an average of $17 an hour.

They work in housekeeping, maintenance, and as registered practical nurses, making less than registered nurses.

“We’ve been encouraging the government to look at other means of saving money. Take a look at the (hospital) CEOs’ salaries,” said Stewart, noting top hospital executives earn up to $830,000 a year.

“You can’t take it off the front-line workers,” she said.

The settlement affects workers at 60 different sites of 38 hospitals across Ontario and is retroactive to Oct. 11, 2009 and runs through next Oct. 10 — four days after the 2011 provincial election.

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