Closing arguments begin in wage-freeze lawsuit as province touts 'substantial' changes to bill
Province asks judge to consider amendments to Bill 28 before deciding if it's unconstitutional
The Manitoba government says it has made "substantial" changes to a bill mandating a wage freeze for public-sector unions since its creation nearly three years ago — a fact its lawyers want considered in the civil trial, a Winnipeg court heard Tuesday.
The eleventh-hour move came in the final days of court hearings focused on whether the Progressive Conservative government's bill to freeze the wages of public-sector workers was unconstitutional.
Bill 28 mandated a two-year wage freeze for government employees as each new collective agreement was negotiated.
That was to be followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.
The bill, known as the Public Services Sustainability Act, has never been proclaimed into law, meaning it technically is not in effect — but public-sector unions say government negotiators have acted as though the wage freeze is in effect, since the law is written to apply retroactively once proclaimed.
The Manitoba Federation of Labour, along with 28 unions, argued the legislation interferes with the union's right to collective bargaining.
As closing arguments were set to begin on Tuesday, the province's lawyers sought to have the judge in the case, Justice Joan McKelvey, consider recent amendments that have since been made to The Public Services Sustainability Act.
The province initially sought an adjournment to the trial last fall while it was considering amendments, but later withdrew that request.
Lawyers for the unions said it would be unfair to allow the proposed changes to the bill to be considered after the trial has already come to a close and asked the judge to disregard any references to amendments.
The judge reserved her decision on allowing the amendments.
Closing arguments begin
Lawyers for the unions began their closing arguments by recapping how they believe the province did not act in good faith when it said it consulted with union leaders prior to announcing the proposed legislation.
They also said the province provided no witnesses that could testify that the wage freezes were financially necessary.
During the trial, the defence had mentioned "the elephant in the room", referring to the fact that the Act had not yet been made law, and therefore could not have had an impact yet.
The unions argued that it forced them to bargain under duress and alleged the province was trying to bypass collective bargaining processes and interfere with negotiations.
They pointed to the fact the Supreme Court of Canada has previously ruled collective bargaining process is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and argued the deficit and debt facing Manitoba are not at the level of a fiscal crisis.
In the past, the government has defended the bill by saying it's part of its effort to balance Manitoba's books and eliminate the deficit.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said the case isn't about freezing wages but about ensuring the government recognizes the rights of workers to a collective bargaining process.
"Right from the start this government met with us and said they were coming to us with a blank slate and they wanted to problem solve together, when through evidence [we've learned] their mind was made up before they ever met with us for the first time," he said.
Rebeck said evidence showed that the province had drafted the legislation before meeting with unions, showing they did not consult with them in good faith.
"The arguments they put forward was 'we're in a financial crisis', where their own witnesses have now said, there was no crisis then, there's no crisis today," he said.
Rebeck said about 120,000 people work in the public sector and will be affected by the legislation.
The trial took place over two weeks in November and December.
Closing submissions will continue until Thursday.
With files from Aidan Geary, Austin Grabish and Ian Froese