Manitoba government has legal power to freeze public-sector wages, lawyer says
Public Services Sustainability Act freezes wages for 2 years for public-sector workers
The Manitoba government has the legal authority to freeze public-sector wages, a lawyer for the province argued in court Wednesday.
Heather Leonoff urged Justice James Edmond to reject a request from the Manitoba Federation of Labour and four public-sector unions seeking an injunction blocking the government from implementing its wage-freeze legislation, which was passed in spring 2017 but has not yet been proclaimed.
"If you grant an injunction in this case, there will be what I would describe as chaos," Leonoff said.
If you grant an injunction in this case, there will be what I would describe as chaos.- Heather Leonoff, lawyer for Province of Manitoba
Unions representing more than 110,000 workers in Manitoba say the the Public Services Sustainability Act infringes on their constitutional right to bargain collectively. They want the court to temporarily suspend the act, pending a trial to determine whether it's constitutional.
Because only the four unions who are currently bargaining with the province signed on to the lawsuit, there is uncertainty about who the law would apply to if an injunction were granted, Leonoff said.
Canadian courts have repeatedly ruled that governments have the right to impose "time-limited, broad-based wage-restraint legislation," she said.
"Legislation that is passed by a democratically elected government is to be followed until such time as a court strikes it down, one exception — the clearest of cases, blatant unconstitutionality," she said.
'Overwhelming amount of jurisprudence'
The act freezes wages for all public-sector workers for two years at the start of a new collective agreement, followed by increases of 0.75 per cent and one per cent in the third and fourth years.
Leonoff cited five Supreme Court of Canada cases in which injunctions were denied, even though in three of those cases legislation was later found to violate the constitution.
"I must say, in a 40-year career, I do not think I've ever been able to rely on five cases at the same time, but this time I can. That's an overwhelming amount of jurisprudence."
Lawyers representing the unions argued in court on Tuesday that the act is already interfering in ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.
They argue the act is causing irreparable harm by straining relationships between unions and their members, and between unions and their employers.
"Even though it's not proclaimed, it's having the effect of being proclaimed," Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevn Rebeck said Tuesday.
Even if a court ultimately strikes the law down, Leonoff argued no irreparable harm will have been done because any agreements reached under the wage-restraint act can be renegotiated.
"The concepts that we heard the other day, that there will be frustration or anger or lack of motivation … that's not the type of irreparable harm we're talking about. We have to be talking about the harm that is protected by the constitution, and that's the ability to have some kind of meaningful discussion," she said.
Decision on injunction reserved
Shannon Carson, arguing for the unions on Tuesday, said by taking wages off the table, the government is hampering the ability of workers to bargain on other issues, such as job security, by offering concessions on monetary issues.
Leonoff argued the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Meredith vs. Canada, in which RCMP officers sued the federal government for rolling back wage increases they had negotiated during the 2008 financial crisis, concluded that unions and employers could still bargain fruitfully without addressing wages.
The act also leaves room for unions to apply to the Treasury Board for exemptions, Leonoff said. It also allows for unions to argue for wage increases if they can find savings in other ways.
Justice Edmond reserved his decision on the temporary injunction. Once a decision is made, another date must be set to decide whether the act violates workers' constitutional rights to collective bargaining.