TORONTO - Premier Kathleen Wynne blindsided tens of thousands of civil servants by suddenly announcing major changes to their retirement benefits without consulting their union first, a public-sector union leader said Wednesday.
The cash-strapped Liberal government announced late Tuesday that civil servants would have to work longer to qualify for retirement benefits, as well as pay more for those benefits.
Warren "Smokey" Thomas, head of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said they would have been more than willing to negotiate with the government as they have done in the past over pensions.
Now the OPSEU, which represents about 35,000 members, is seeking legal advice on whether the government can make these new changes unilaterally.
"If they would have just picked up the phone and called and said, can we strike a table, we want to sit down and talk about some of these things we see as problems, we could have went to that table," Thomas said.
"But now all they've done is picked a fight. And they've made it adversarial when it didn't have to be adversarial."
Government Services Minister John Milloy acknowledged that the union was only informed of the changes on Tuesday before they were announced in a news release.
But he insisted the government has a right to make the changes and has to provide the union with three years' notice.
"We sit down with unions and negotiate certain aspects of their contract," he said. "Other aspects are in the purview of government. This is one that's in the purview of government."
Civil servants retiring in 2017 and later will have to pay half of their premiums for life, health, dental and vision coverage, which is currently covered by the province.
The eligibility period for retiree benefits would rise from 10 to 20 years for workers who are hired from Jan. 1, 2017 onward or who have less than a decade of pension credit by that time.
He said the changes will save the government an estimated $1.2 billion over five years.
They won't apply to current retirees, but Thomas said they would punish workers retiring in the future.
He said Wynne should rescind the changes, accusing her of attacking middle-class workers.
OPSEU represents about 25,813 pensioners in the Ontario Public Service, Thomas said. The average retiree receives a pension of about $20,000 a year.
"Whenever they get into a jam, they come to us. But this time they didn't even come to us," he said.
"So my gut feeling is this is pure politics on their part. They want to be seen as tough on public sector workers just like (Progressive Conservative Leader) Tim Hudak is."
Wynne came into the top job a year ago with a mission to smooth things over with public school teachers after the Liberals forced new contracts on them and limited their ability to strike.
Thomas said when he met Wynne after she became premier, she told him the government â€” which is facing a deficit of almost $12 billion â€” had no money.
Yet the Liberals had no problem cancelling two unpopular gas plants ahead of the 2011 election, he said, which the auditor general says could cost taxpayers up to $1.1 billion.
"I said, 'I've got two words for you sister: every time you say we've got no money, I'm going to say 'power plants'," he said.
"My point in this is that they have the money for the things they want."
But in the legislature, the Liberals were accused of siding with unions at taxpayers' expense.
The Tories introduced a private member's bill Wednesday that would force the province's public sector unions to compete for government services contracts as a way of saving taxpayers money.
Unions should bid against private companies to provide various services, with a government watchdog determining which areas should be open to competition, said Hudak.
"(The bill) would basically compel the new Financial Accountability Officer to look at areas of managed competition to ensure that we contract out where possible, where it makes sense for taxpayers' services, so that we get the best quality at the best price to the taxpayer," he said.
In the legislature, Wynne mocked Hudak's proposal while also taking a shot at another vague PC bill to create one million jobs over eight years.
"Like the million-jobs plan that the leader talked about, it is magical thinking. said Wynne. "We don't engage in magical thinking."
Hudak responded by saying the Liberals "are on the side of the special interests who are getting rich off these fat contracts."
The Conservatives would not contract out police, health or teaching services, but said they would look at competitive bids for things such as email hosting, transportation, food and laundry services in jails and even employment training.
â€” with files from Keith Leslie