Manitoba premier looking for 'pause' in public-sector pay

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has dropped another hint that he is considering legislation that would impose a public-sector wage freeze.

Throne speech promised to introduce law to control public-sector wage freeze

Premier Brian Pallister says the government is asking for what he calls a pause in wage increases. (CBC)

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister dropped another strong hint Tuesday his Progressive Conservative government is planning to legislate a wage freeze for public-sector workers to help trim the deficit.

Pallister was questioned on his government's throne speech on Monday which said legislation is to be introduced to control the growth of spending.

Pallister said details will come in the spring following talks with labour leaders. But, he added, the plan is to have legislation that will implement a "pause" in wage increases.

"What we are talking about in terms of impacts on folks that work with us is ... a pause. And we're going to be asking for a pause in the increases, so we can get our financial house in order."

When asked whether he meant a wage freeze, Pallister said he was not ready to reveal details.

The previous NDP government used the word "pause" when it negotiated a two-year wage freeze for major public-sector unions in 2010.

NDP justice critic Andrew Swan said Tuesday Pallister may end up in a losing court battle if he tries to unilaterally force a wage freeze on unions.

"If this government ... tries to mandate that there will be wage freezes or wage rollbacks based on the government's own view of the finances, there's a real risk that it's going to be overturned in a court of law," said Swan, the province's former attorney general.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a law in British Columbia that had removed the right of the provincial teachers union to bargain class sizes and number of special-needs students per classroom. The court ruled the government had violated the right to collective bargaining.

Pallister said he has to control wages because they are roughly 75 per cent of the provincial budget, and the province has faced years of deficits and a recent credit downgrade from an international bond-rating agency.

"We ran on a promise to fix the finances and we'll take measures to do that."

Faculty at the University of Manitoba accepted a one-year wage freeze Monday as part of a contract settlement that ended a three-week-long strike.

The university and the faculty association had issued a joint statement during the walkout that said Pallister's government had asked the university and other public-sector employers to extend contracts an extra year with a wage freeze. The faculty association accused the premier of illegally interfering in collective bargaining.

Nurses across the province will be among the first major groups to come up for contract renewal next year. Collective agreements for members of the Manitoba Nurses Union expire at the end of March.