Premier Brian Pallister said he can't promise there won't be any layoffs coming for Manitoba's public sector workers after the province introduced a bill that would impose a two-year wage freeze on all public sector employees.
"I'm not committing to no layoffs. We can't do that," Pallister told reporters on Tuesday. "But realistically, we're trying to limit the impacts on front-line [workers], we've said that from the start."
Bill 28, introduced by Finance Minister Cameron Friesen on Monday, proposes a four-year "sustainability period" on public sector employee wages: two years of a wage freeze followed by a maximum 0.75 per cent increase in the third year and a maximum one per cent increase in the fourth year.
Increases in the third and fourth years could be higher if unions or management find opportunities for savings elsewhere, Friesen said Tuesday.
Pallister said the province opted for a legislative approach to avoid layoffs, and in the interest of avoiding a credit rating downgrade for Manitoba.
"We've chosen not to do the layoff option that other governments provincially have chosen, and federally as well, and so what we're trying to do is keep people working and trying to make sure that people who are working have better job security," Pallister said.
Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, has called the bill an interference in collective bargaining processes and said unions haven't ruled out a legal challenge.
On Tuesday, he said the federation's legal advisors are reviewing the situation and haven't made any decisions yet.
Nurses union, CUPE contracts end in March
The president of the Manitoba Nurses Union said it's unclear how the proposed legislation will impact the union's upcoming negotiations.
Sandi Mowat said contracts for the "vast majority" of the province's 12,000 nurses are set to expire on March 31. The union has served notice it's ready to bargain as normal, she said, but hasn't decided yet if it will ask for a wage increase.
"We're assuming we still will go to the bargaining table because we have other things to talk about," Mowat said. "Certainly we have priorities around workload and staffing and scheduling and workplace safety and health. So the ball is in the employer's court now."
Another 11,000 health sector employees represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees will also see their contracts expire at the end of March.
Mowat said unions are going through the legislation "page by page," considering whether to pursue a legal challenge.
Unions facing wage freeze legislation have challenged it as unconstitutional outside of Manitoba with varied success, said labour and employment lawyer Jamie Jurczak, a partner at Taylor McCaffrey LLP in Winnipeg.
The collective bargaining process has been extended protection under the freedom of association clause in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That followed a 2007 Supreme Court of Canada ruling siding with health-care workers in British Columbia.
Jurczak said governments have been paying attention to the series of legal challenges mounted against wage freeze legislation in the past. As a result, provinces have introduced different laws.
"The commentary and the way that the legislation has played out has, of course, evolved over time, with people trying to draft their legislation in such a way that it would withstand a court challenge," she said.
Jurczak said the 2007 Supreme Court decision left room for wage freeze legislation to withstand a constitutional challenge.
"There's discussion in the case about ensuring that it is not substantially interfering with bargaining rights," she said.
"There's a lot of commentary on what that may or may not look like, looking at what the economic climate might be or the circumstances of the facts of any given situation that led to the introduction of … the piece of legislation."