Manitoba

'We're finally here': Court battle begins as unions fight province over wage-freeze bill

Lawyers for nearly 30 Manitoba labour groups argued in court Monday a wage-freeze bill brought by the Progressive Conservative government is an economically motivated violation of the Charter right to free and meaningful collective bargaining.

'I feel we were lied to,' Manitoba Federation of Labour head Kevin Rebeck testifies on Day 1 of 14-day trial

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, says government officials weren't open with him about plans for wage freeze legislation in meetings about plans to balance the budget. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Lawyers for nearly 30 Manitoba labour groups argued in court Monday a wage-freeze bill brought by the Progressive Conservative government is an economically motivated violation of the Charter right to free and meaningful collective bargaining.

Monday was the first day of a trial brought by the Manitoba Federation of Labour and 28 unions representing thousands of public-sector workers, asking Justice Joan McKelvey to find Bill 28 unconstitutional.

"I'm glad we're finally here. It's been 2½ years," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the federation, after finishing his testimony in court Monday.

"There's 120,000 Manitobans and their families who are counting on us to speak up and defend their right to collective bargaining. We're doing our best to do so."

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, also called the Public Services Sustainability Act, has never actually been proclaimed into law, meaning it technically is not in effect — but public-sector unions say government negotiators have acted as though the wage freeze is in effect since the law is written to apply retroactively once proclaimed.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks to reporters during his election campaign. His government is fighting public-sector unions over a wage-freeze bill in court this week. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

In his testimony Monday, Rebeck told court government officials misled him and other labour leaders about plans to pass the legislation in early 2017, in a series of meetings arranged by the government with the stated goal of getting labour leaders' input on how to balance the budget.

Rebeck said officials, including then-finance minister Cameron Friesen, told him repeatedly the budget plan was a "blank slate," and withheld information about what kind of legislation, if any, would be brought forward. Documents entered into court Monday showed draft versions of wage freeze legislation were in the works by late 2016.

"I feel we were lied to," Rebeck said. 

"I feel like labour leaders representing over 100,000 workers came to the table in good faith, asking questions, wanting to problem solve, wanting to work together on a solution to Manitoba's fiscal challenges, and were betrayed by government representatives."

'Elephant in the room' is law hasn't taken effect: lawyer

The unions involved in the case include those representing Manitoba nurses, lawyers, teachers and university faculty. On Monday, their lawyer Shannon Carson pointed to the fact the Supreme Court of Canada has previously ruled collective bargaining process is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and argued the deficit and debt facing Manitoba are not at the level of a fiscal crisis.

In the past, the government has defended the bill by saying it's part of its effort to balance Manitoba's finances and defeat deficit.

A spokesperson for the province wrote in an email Monday the government is confident in the constitutionality of the law.

"It protects public services for all Manitobans, supports collective bargaining and delivers on our commitment to responsibly address the fiscal challenges we inherited," the spokesperson wrote, adding she wouldn't comment further because the matter is before the courts.

On Monday, provincial lawyer Heather Leonoff called arguments about how the law was written "irrelevant," and said the primary issue before the court is whether it's constitutional.

She argued any discussion of the law's effect on bargaining will be based on assumptions, because the law hasn't taken effect.

"I think it is necessary that we all acknowledge the elephant in the room: the [Public Services Sustainability Act] is not law. It is having no legal effect on anyone," she said.

"Everything we are talking about regarding this act is entirely hypothetical."

Trial 'isn't about the zeros': Rebeck

On Monday, Rebeck reiterated the unions' fight against the bill isn't about guaranteeing wage increases — it's about protecting the collective bargaining process.

"This court case is not about the outcome. This isn't about the zeros," he said. "This is about government not allowing people to meet at a table to problem solve together to find solutions that will work."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew speaks in a media scrum at the Manitoba Legislature in October. He calls the government's case a "joke." (Austin Grabish/CBC)

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government's efforts to seek an adjournment last month signal it's not confident in its case.

"The government's case is a joke, to be frank," he said. "They tried at the 11th hour to try and get the hearing not to happen at all, and I think that that tells you that they are not looking forward to what the judge is going to tell them at the end of this."

The unions will be in court until Dec. 5, and then again in February for three days to make their case.

The trial resumes Tuesday.

With files from Austin Grabish and The Canadian Press

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