Premier Brian Pallister will throw down the gauntlet to public sector unions Monday, but if history is any indication, the Progressive Conservatives better be ready for a fight.

Two bills to be introduced by the Tories Monday afternoon are expected to make good on Pallister's promise to tackle public sector wages and reduce the number of bargaining units in the health sector.

It's not clear whether this will include a return to Filmon Fridays for the public sector or reopening current contracts; Tories have mused about both in the past few months.

The legislation is part of Pallister's "all hands on deck" plan to slay the province's estimated $1-billion deficit within the next eight years. He has repeatedly said that 70 per cent of government's $15-billion budget goes to wages and compensation.

"The public sector workers of our province need to know that this government has their future in mind. That we want a more secure working environment, more confidence in our province," Pallister said Friday when asked if his government would be imposing legislation on unions.

"We are (not) going to go back to everyone else and say, 'you are going to pay higher taxes because we are not willing to bargain effectively.'"

The Nova Scotia example

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Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba certainly isn't the first province to look to public sector wages as a means to slay a growing deficit. Most recently, the Nova Scotia Liberals waged a similar war after wrestling power from the NDP in 2013.

"It has almost become the norm," explained Nova Scotia Federation of Labour president Danny Cavanagh, regarding recent legislation introduced by the Nova Scotia government.

The government passed Bill 148 in 2015, the Public Services Sustainability Act, which essentially took wages off the bargaining table for the public sector and imposed a two-year wage freeze for any worker —including those who work for Crown corporations, unionized and non-unionized — paid by the province.

The Pallister government's proposed bill is also called The Public Services Sustainability Act.

In 2015, Nova Scotia announced it was looking to end the year with a deficit of $241 million and the hammer came down. 

In 2014, it introduced Bill 1 to merge dozens of health-sector bargaining units into four categories.

This year Nova Scotia took on the teachers, passing controversial legislation that imposed a four-year contract on teachers after they rejected three tentative agreements between the union and government. The Nova Scotia Teachers Union is in the midst of preparing a legal challenge.

How the unions have fought back

Kevin Rebeck

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck says (CBC)

Rebeck said Pallister's recent comments being prepared for potential legal challenges are very concerning.

"The last thing anyone wants is to end up [with] legal challenges for this and government money is public money that he would be dealing with [in a] challenge. If he knows he's breaking the law, he should just not do that," Rebeck said.
He said Pallister promised early in his term to respect obligations made by the Crown in terms of contracts.

"We are very concerned with the premier living up to his word ... His word a few months ago on contracts was those are deals to be respected and now there is legislation with him on the record saying we don't feel we need to meet [at] a bargaining table, we've got legislation."

The Public Services Sustainability Act passed in Nova Scotia, but it has never been proclaimed and bargaining has been virtually frozen for the past two years, explained CUPE's Atlantic regional director, Jacquie Bramwell. The union is holding out hope an arbitrator will be able to look at the legislation and find it contravenes the collective bargaining process.

"It is a hammer that sits there and the government still hasn't enacted the bill," she said. "Very few are actively bargaining because of Bill 148."

The bill resulted in hours of debate and years of back and forth between the province, unions and the provincially appointed arbitrator. The arbitrator, James Dorsey, got fired multiple times and ultimately the province was able to reduce the number of bargaining units down to four categories of workers. 

Cavanagh said the stagnation of Bill 148 is a result of the landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in which the B.C. Teachers' Federation won on the right to negotiate class size and composition in November. The decision ended an ongoing dispute, dating back to 2002, when the province used legislation to strip teachers of the right to bargain class size and composition.

"They know they won't win in the Supreme Court," explained Cavanagh.

The Supreme Court ultimately upheld a past decision that the B.C. government's 2002 legislation was unconstitutional, citing the fundamental right of freedom of association. An argument put forth by the government that pre-consultation with unions trumped the constitution argument was dismissed.

In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a Saskatchewan law that prevents public-sector employees from striking. Justice Rosalie Abella said that power violated the same section of the constitution.

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck says the four meetings the unions have had with the government on finding savings within the civil service have been one-sided and unproductive.

Pallister ready for battle

Pallister says he is well aware of the legal challenges waged in other provinces, but said it is worth the risk.

"I am aware of other provinces that had legal challenges, I think the issue of legal challenge is, one, you have to be willing to take the risk on if you want to take action to address this issue," he said.

When asked if it's worth the legal costs, Pallister replied that the unions have "basically run the government" for the past 17 years. The B.C government is now on the hook for millions annually towards the education system as it works to restore what was stripped in 2002; the BCTF estimates it could cost up to $300 million annually.

"The bargaining table wasn't necessary, it was treated as the buffet table for a long time and Manitoba taxpayers, including union workers, have had to pay the price of higher taxes because of it," Pallister said.

As for Manitoba's 169 health sector bargaining units, Pallister said virtually every other province has been able to reduce the amount, so Manitoba should follow suit. Monday's introduction of The Health Sector Bargaining Unit Review Act will likely be the first step in the process of merging some of them.

What else to expect Monday

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Expect legislation to be introduced that will pave the way for Uber to enter the Manitoba market, something Mayor Brian Bowman has recently announced he fully supports.

Legislation to help police crack down on drivers who are high on marijuana will likely be introduced by Justice Minister Heather Stefanson. The legislation was supposed to be introduced on Thursday, but Stefanson was sick.

Meanwhile, Pallister has hinted that legislation surrounding voter identification will be brought forth, likely through legislation under Elections Amendment Act that will be introduced by Stefanson.

He told media on Friday that "people who should be who they say they are when they vote."

Currently Manitobans must show identification when they vote, but are able to sign a declaration of address if they do not have the proper ID.

"We might have even legislation coming up with something like that," Pallister said when asked if he believe people should show identification when voting.

The Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act will also be introduced by Education Minister Ian Wishart, which the Opposition NDP and Canadian Federation of Students fear will pave the way for the removal of the province's cap on tuition.

With files from Sean Kavanagh