Manitoba government wins appeal of court decision against wage freeze legislation

The Manitoba government has won its appeal of a judge's decision to throw out controversial legislation that sought to freeze the wages of approximately 120,000 public sector workers.

Labour federation considers next steps after appeal court rules Bill 28 is constitutional

Winnipeg School Division bus drivers on strike last fall after the province urged the division to institute a two-year wage freeze. The Manitoba Court of Appeal has said legislating wage freezes does not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The Manitoba government has won its appeal of a judge's decision to throw out controversial legislation that sought to freeze the wages of some 120,000 public sector workers.

The wage freeze bill does not violate Section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects workers' rights to bargain collectively, the Manitoba Court of Appeal ruled in a unanimous decision released Wednesday.

"While there can be no doubt that the imposition of wage restraint legislation … impacts or interferes with the collective bargaining process, the case law establishes that that type of legislative interference does not amount to "substantial interference" when it is broad-based and for a limited period of time," Chief Justice Richard Chartier wrote.

The Partnership to Defend Public Services, which challenged the bill, said it's disappointed by the ruling.

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said his organization will consider its next steps, including a potential appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

He said the labour federation will keep fighting for the rights of workers to collective bargaining. 

"I think most Manitobans would agree that when workers and employers can get together and bargain and problem solve, that that produces good results," Rebeck said.

"To allow government to dictate outcomes seems to me to be grossly unfair."

The Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench slammed the proposed legislation with strong language last year, describing it as a "draconian measure" that "inhibited and dramatically reduced the unions' bargaining power and violates associational rights."

The legislation, introduced in 2017, mandated a two-year wage freeze for government employees once their existing contracts expired, followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.

In the June 2020 Queen's Bench ruling, Justice Joan McKelvey described the government's approach as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Bill 28, the legislation in question, was never proclaimed into law and thus never in effect — but public-sector unions say government negotiators acted as though it was. The law would have applied retroactively if it had been proclaimed.

Since then, the government has required some of its employers to freeze wages or restrict wage increases. 

In a news release on Wednesday, Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the province will repeal a hotly contested public sector wage freeze bill, one day after Premier Heather Stefanson's inaugural throne speech. (CTV pool)

Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the province is pleased the appeal court judge found the proposed bill to be constitutional. 

Asked if the province would consider another round of legislative freezes given the latest ruling, Fielding declined to rule out the possibility.

"I think we want to look forward as opposed to backwards, but obviously we haven't had time to discuss that with cabinet and other elected officials in terms of our approach going forward," he said.

"We'll have, obviously, a new premier that does come in that will be seated in the next two weeks or so, so we'll have discussions with the new premier."

Bad day for public-sector employees: NDP

The governing Progressive Conservative Party is set to elect a new leader — who will become Manitoba's next premier— on Oct. 30.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew urged the next premier to unilaterally do away with the province's wage freeze policies and focus on stimulating economic growth with jobs that pay well.

Wednesday was a bad day for public-sector employees, including nurses, teachers and Manitoba Hydro workers who have been fighting for fair wage increases, Kinew said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he hopes the incoming PC leader and premier of Manitoba unilaterally moves away from wage-freeze policies. (CBC)

"When you have a Manitoba Hydro grid that has to deal with the variability of climate change — could be ice storms one year, drought the next — and you don't pay those Hydro workers a fair wage, well that seems to be a recipe for failure," the Opposition leader said.

"As we've seen throughout the pandemic, when you freeze the wages of nurses and teachers at the same time that we're asking them to do more at the bedside and more in the classroom, it just leads to frustration and that affects all of us."

The NDP joined the Manitoba Liberals and the University of Manitoba Faculty Association in a joint press conference Wednesday, where they said low salaries at the U of M are driving staff out of province.

UMFA announced a strike vote last week after negotiations hit an impasse over restrictions imposed by the province, the union said.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the departure of some health-care and post-secondary workers is tied to provincial resistance to wage increases and boosting resources.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says while the appeal court found the legislation to be constitutional, Manitobans have to live with the 'devastating' consequences of those policies on public-sector workforces. (CTV pool)

"The PCs have starved the education system and starved our health-care system, and so the people who work in it are voting with their feet," he said.

"They are leaving Manitoba and it's a disgrace that that's happening because that's a choice on the part of this government."

As well, the same court voted against Manitoba's appeal of a lower-court ruling that the government violated collective bargaining rights during contract talks at the University of Manitoba in 2016.

The government was found to have interrupted negotiations by demanding a one-year wage freeze from faculty, after the university had already offered them a seven per cent wage increase over four years.

The trial judge did not commit any errors in finding those actions an infringement on the collective bargaining process, the appeals court ruled.

With files from The Canadian Press


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