Manitoba

Manitoba government urges pay freeze for bus drivers, despite losing court fight over wage legislation

Despite a recent court ruling quashing a government-mandated wage freeze, the Manitoba government is still pushing for some public sector workers to receive no pay bumps in the immediate future.

Winnipeg School Division trustee concerned that government is injecting itself into negotiations

Winnipeg School Division bus drivers are walking the picket line. The province has urged the school division to negotiate a contract that has no wage increase for two years. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Despite a recent court ruling against its public sector wage freeze, the Manitoba government still says some workers should see pay hikes halted for the immediate future.

In an internal memo, the province urges the Winnipeg School Division to offer no increases in salary or compensation for two years to the bus drivers it is currently negotiating with.

The Progressive Conservative government's "WSD mandate" is focused on a "two-year horizon," the memo says. The compensation freeze request is tied to the province's financial woes during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the Sept. 3 letter, which the Opposition NDP provided to CBC News.

"This would provide both WSD and UFCW [the union that represents the drivers] with the opportunity to reassess the situation and resume bargaining following this two-year term, when there are less unknowns relative to overall budgetary pressures within the public sector," the letter said.

About 95 school bus drivers in the division went on strike last week after their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, couldn't reach a new collective bargaining agreement with WSD.

Winnipeg School Division trustee Chris Broughton, who chairs the board's finance and personnel committee, said the memo is disappointing.

"I think it's concerning that the government is injecting itself into the collective bargaining of school divisions and … essentially eroding the autonomy and the authority that school divisions have to operate," said Broughton, the former board chair.

Division limited in what it can offer: finance chair

The province's request for the Winnipeg School Division mirrors wage parameters under Bill 28, provincial legislation that mandated two-year wage freezes, followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.

The legislation was struck down by the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench earlier this year as a "draconian measure which limits and reduces a union's bargaining power" and which violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The legislation was passed in 2017 but never proclaimed into law, and so was never technically in effect, but public sector unions say government negotiators acted as though it was.

The province is now appealing the court's decision, arguing it needs clarity on what governments can do to control costs.

Before receiving a new COVID mandate from the province, WSD was asking its bus drivers to accept the Bill 28 wage mandate, Broughton said.

The division is limited in what it can offer, due to its own financial constraints, he said. The province has limited grant funding increases and restricted property tax hikes.

He was taken aback by the government's latest directive, which backs off from the four-year contracts prescribed under Bill 28 and instead offers a two-year term.

'Any worker in Manitoba, including those in the public sector, should be able to negotiate ... a raise,' says NDP Leader Wab Kinew. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Bea Bruske, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 832, said the government is suddenly presenting an alternative offer.

"When we're in negotiations, we take our cue from the person sitting across the table from us, and in this case, that has been the Winnipeg School Division and representatives thereof, and not government," Bruske said.

She said neither offer is acceptable for bus drivers, since both involve a wage freeze.

The government said in its letter that the compensation freeze reflects government's role in setting "broad monetary collective bargaining mandates" for public sector employers, and the pandemic's effect on Manitoba's finances.

The memo notes that government respects the union's fundamental right to strike.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said it's clear the government is hindering what should be a fair bargaining process. 

"Unfortunately, it makes the parents who wanted to be able to send their kids to school on a bus this year collateral damage," he said.

Kinew said the province hasn't learned from the court's rebuke of Bill 28.

"Any worker in Manitoba, including those in the public sector, should be able to negotiate, or at least bargain for, a raise," he said. "The government knows that they lost in court, and yet they still are trying to use that rationale and interfere in this negotiation."

The province said in a statement Tuesday the new letter to WSD has nothing to do with Bill 28 or its court appeal. 

"It reflects government's stewardship function over public funds during the extensive challenges caused by the pandemic, as it seeks to protect all Manitoba families," spokesperson Andrea Slobodian wrote in an email.

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.

With files from The Canadian Press

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