Public sector unions, PC government to meet in new year

Manitoba's public sector unions will sit down with the PC government in advance of many contract negotiations in 2017.

MGEU welcomes face-to-face meeting, and an end to learning of government's plans through media

Members of several unions, including the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union (MGEU), took part in a protest in downtown Winnipeg in September over the closure of the Port of Churchill. Five public sector unions will sit down with the Pallister government Jan. 5. (CBC News )

The heads of some of Manitoba's largest public sector unions will sit down with the Progressive Conservative government early in the new year

The meeting, on Jan. 5, will be the first time the labour organizations meet as a group with the PC government. There has been tension between the two sides since Premier Brian Pallister was elected last April. Pallister has signalled an interest in re-opening existing collective bargaining agreements in the hope of getting wage concessions.

Leaders from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, the Manitoba Nurses Union, the Manitoba Teachers' Society and the United Food and Commercial Workers will attend the meeting.

Kevin Rebeck, the head of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, is also attending.

A major point of concern for public sector unions has been a pledge in the Pallister government's fall throne speech promising legislation that would prevent government from agreeing to increases it cannot pay for without deficit spending.

A sit-down meeting is a relief for the head of the MGEU after getting some of the government's messages through media and public speeches made by Pallister. 

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said they want to start contract bargaining this year with an open mind and getting together might help that process.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said the meeting Jan. 5 is a 'good first step.' (Sean Kavanagh CBC News )

"I'm very pleased to be meeting face-to-face [rather] than to be hearing the government's thoughts through the media, and that's what has been happening an awful lot lately. So this counts as a very good first step in being able to sit down and talk," Gawronsky said.

The MGEU will start negotiating a new contract in April for 7,500 members who are employed as support workers in the healthcare sector.

Union poll shows support for protecting services

The MGEU has done polling which suggests 46 per cent of Manitobans surveyed believe the government's top priority should be protecting healthcare, child protection, justice and other front-line services. Stimulating the economy and creating jobs came in second at 31 per cent and reducing the deficit (even if it meant cutting services) came in third at 12 per cent. Just nine per cent said reducing taxes should be the priority. 

"Our members and Manitobans in the poll definitely supported that they place a high value on services...the services that the Premier did say that he would be protecting and be promoting," Gawronsky said.

The Probe Research poll was conducted via telephone interviews between Nov. 29 and Dec. 11 and reached 1,000 people with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. 

The union also asked respondents whether they thought it was fair or unfair to impose wage limits before contract negotiations begin. Fifty-nine per cent said it was not fair, 34 per cent said it was and seven per cent weren't sure. 

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said through a spokesperson that the province looks forward to a dialogue with labour. (CBC News )

Pallister has repeatedly said some kind of fiscal restraint is necessary to protect front-line services.

CBC News asked for comment from Finance Minister Cameron Friesen on the government's reasons for calling the meeting.

"As a standard practice we don't comment on the content of private meetings, however we look forward to continued dialogue with our partners in labour," said an email from a spokesperson for the minister.

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