Manitoba

Court strikes down Manitoba's 'draconian' wage freeze bill

In a major decision, a Manitoba judge threw out controversial legislation Thursday that sought to freeze the wages of more than 100,000 public sector workers.
The Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench ruled that a government bill mandating wage freezes was a "draconian measure." (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In a major decision, a Manitoba judge threw out controversial legislation Thursday that sought to freeze the wages of more than 100,000 public sector workers.

Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joan McKelvey ruled against Bill 28, the legislation that was trying to force a two-year wage freeze on public sector unions.

"I have concluded that the (Public Services Sustainability Act) operates as a draconian measure that has inhibited and dramatically reduced the unions' bargaining power and violates associational rights," McKelvey wrote.

The legislation, introduced in 2017, mandated a two-year wage freeze for government employees once their existing contracts expired.

The freeze was followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.

The bill was never proclaimed in 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 was proclaimed.

'Substantial interference,' court finds

McKelvey slammed the government's approach as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The overall impact of the legislation on a process of collective bargaining rises to the level of substantial interference," she said.

"The legislation circumvents and compresses the leverage or bargaining power available and inhibits the unions's ability to trade off monetary benefits for non-monetary enhancements."

Unions argued the legislation hung over collective bargaining negotiations for years. Some employee groups, including the Manitoba Nurses Union, have been working without a contract for years.

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, is pleased the government's law mandating wage freezes was deemed unconstitutional. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"Despite the fact that it has not been proclaimed," McKelvey wrote, the bill's "effectively in force" in Manitoba.

She adds the 21 agreements settled since the bill's introduction were "negotiated under duress."

The Manitoba Federation of Labour applauded the ruling.

"The courts today have upheld the position that we took, and that's one that this was an unconstitutional law that this government moved on," MFL president Kevin Rebeck said.

"Our legal team did a tremendous job and Manitoba's unions didn't blink once when we saw workers' rights were being trampled on."

The MFL, along with the other 28 unions involved in the legal fight, maintained the province was interfering with their right to collective bargaining.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said it would act swiftly to negotiate new agreements for thousands of workers who have gone without a contract for years.

"Brian Pallister has been pushing ideological cuts to public services and attempted to do so by violating our constitutional right to bargain collective agreements," said Abe Araya, president of CUPE Manitoba, in a news release.

"Pallister lost in court today, but the fight against his austerity agenda isn't over."

The province will carefully review the decision and may consider appealing the ruling.

"The legislation had never been proclaimed into law and was in the process of being amended. So, as before, regular labour relations and collective bargaining will continue," it said in a statement.

The ruling will add "even deeper fiscal challenges" for the province, which is already dealing with the financial hit of the COVID-19 pandemic, the email said.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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