Manitoba wage-freeze bill unconstitutional, removes 'fair process,' unions to argue in court
Court challenge against Bill 28, which government says is needed to fix province's finances, begins Monday
Manitoba unions representing thousands of public-sector workers are taking Brian Pallister's provincial government to court Monday to fight a wage-freeze bill that the Manitoba Federation of Labour says removes the right of employees to collective bargaining.
The federation wants a provincial judge to rule Bill 28 unconstitutional.
"What we're asking for is a fair process. We believe Manitobans believe in a fair process. We believe they deserve it," said Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck.
"There's 120,000 workers and their families who have been left in the lurch because the Pallister government doesn't want to do collective bargaining."
Bill 28, which was passed by the Progressive Conservative government in 2017, mandated a two-year wage freeze for public-sector workers as each new collective agreement was negotiated. That would be followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.
The bill has never been actually been proclaimed into law, though, meaning it technically is not in effect — but public-sector unions say government negotiators have acted as though the wage freeze is in effect, and have refused to budge on wages in negotiations.
The unions, including those representing Manitoba nurses, lawyers, teachers and university faculty, argue the bill is unconstitutional, and point to the fact the Supreme Court of Canada has previously ruled collective bargaining process is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"This court case is not about outcomes of bargaining," Rebeck said. "It's not about a wage freeze. It's about our ability to go to a table to problem-solve with employers to find solutions that we can mutually agree to."
He pointed out that collective bargaining doesn't necessarily mean employees will get higher pay.
"For some that may mean there's wage increases or benefits. For others, it may mean they agree to zeros, and perhaps they get job security in exchange for that."
Rebeck said about a dozen witnesses will be called during the case to show the provincial government isn't respecting workers' rights to collective bargaining.
The government has defended Bill 28 by saying it is part of its commitment to fixing the province's finances and protecting public services.
The province tried unsuccessfully to have the case adjourned last month after making 11th-hour amendments to the bill.
Central Services Minister Reg Helwer, who is also in charge of Manitoba's Civil Service Commission, said in an emailed statement the government is confident in the constitutionality of the bill.
"It protects public services for all Manitobans, supports collective bargaining and delivers on our commitment to responsibly address the fiscal challenges we inherited," he said.
"Out of respect for the court's process, we will refrain from further comments."
The unions will be in court until Dec. 5, and then again in February for three days to make their case.
With files from The Canadian Press