NDP's new top labour negotiator is former union boss

Robert Ziegler, former president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union will now be helping the government hold down the wages of the workers.
Robert Ziegler, former head of the UFCW, is now the NDP government's point person on labour negotiations. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

The NDP government's new chief labour negotiator is a former union boss.

Robert Ziegler, who retired as president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in October, officially becomes secretary to the compensation committee next week.

The card-carrying NDP supporter came out of retirement for the job.

Ziegler's new gig means after years of arguing the side for the province's organized labour, now he'll be on the other side of the table, speaking for government.

He said Friday he is uniquely suited to the job.

"It's about getting someone who can work cooperatively with labour and management, work in the interests of Manitobans, and try and meet the premier's goal of getting back into a balanced budget," he said.

Ziegler anticipates it won't be an easy job, with contracts expiring as the government tries to balance the province's books by 2016. An Manitoba Government Employees Union contract for 18,000 provincial workers expires at the end of March.

"We have to work cooperatively so what we agree to, in the future, the province can afford [it] and [can] do it without cutting services," he said.

The former union head's jump to the other side of the bargaining table comes as no surprise to one labour expert.

David Camfield at the University of Manitoba said Ziegler comes from the conservative side of the labour movement. He says it's significant that Ziegler will now be helping the government hold down workers' wages.

"They've got someone who knows how top union leaders think, who has a lot of experience. And I think that will be useful for them," he said.

Camfield says the move means a shakeup is needed in organized labour as to who their future leaders will be.

"What kind of union leaders would be able to do a 180, from representing workers to working for the employer to hold workers wages down?" he asked. 

Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives have only one question about Ziegler's new job at the moment.

"Does Mr. Ziegler know which side of the table he's representing?" asked Leader Brian Pallister.

Ziegler said he certainly does. 

"I know the budget is tight," Ziegler said. "The money isn't there and I look at it as, is there way we can get creative in our settlements? We don't want work stoppages."