Wage freezes coming for Manitoba's public servants, doctors, nurses

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government faced protesting students and the threat of a labour lawsuit Monday as it moved to freeze public-sector wages and raise post-secondary tuition fees.

Legislation introduced Monday would block wage increases for 2 years

The Manitoba Nurses' Union is currently in bargaining talks with the province. Their contract expires at the end of March. (Claude Vickery/CBC)

Legislated wage freezes are coming for public sector employees, but Manitoba's finance minister says other concessions remain an option when Manitoba's 120,000 government paid employees go to the bargaining table.

The Progressive Conservatives introduced legislation Monday which takes wages off the bargaining table for the public sector and health-care workers, including doctors.

All workers would see a two-year wage freeze, followed by 0.75 per cent in the third year, and one per cent in the fourth.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said everything else — including unpaid days off, wage rollbacks and pensions changes — can be up for discussion when contracts expire and new collective agreements are hammered out.

"Our conversations with labour are ongoing, they don't stop here," he said after he introduced Bill 28 Monday afternoon. "We are not excluding any conversation."

"Today we have a bill on the table ... in the future let's see what labour brings to the discussions."

Pallister calls it a 'gradual approach''

Premier Brian Pallister described the bill as "moderate and reasonable" and said it is a measure that will hopefully mean front-line jobs are not lost in the future. He said even a one per cent increase in wages costs the province about $100 million.

"We are taking a gradual approach to this, so we can keep as many of our front-line workers working as we possibly can," he said.

While Pallister described the bill as fair because it does not call for existing contracts to be reopened, a top provincial labour leader said the government is interfering in collective bargaining and the bill could face a court challenge.

MFL president Kevin Rebeck says 'isn't fair and isn't reasonable' to limit unions' ability to negotiate. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC News)
"We want to work together to balance the budget and we think we can do that at the bargaining table," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

"Them limiting our ability to do so isn't fair and isn't reasonable."

The legislation made good on Pallister's promise to tackle public sector wages, which account for 70 per cent of the government's annual budget.

The four-year wage package will be rolled in gradually, meaning as every contract is up for negotiation, the wage levels will be implemented. It will apply immediately to collective bargaining agreements expiring after March 20 and if there was no agreement in place prior to March 20. 

It is estimated the legislation would apply to 120,000 employees.

Nurses, doctors feeling the freeze

When asked whether a wage freeze imposed on doctors may send medical professionals to other provinces, Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said nurses and doctors represent a significant portion of the budget.

He noted a one per cent increase to nurses' and doctors' pay would cost the province $20 million.

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen says doctors have responded positively to what the government is doing. (CBC)
"They (doctors) understand the challenges of sustainability within their own field and within Manitoba more generally," he said "They have seen what has happened ... they want to be part of the solution."

Goertzen says he has spoken to doctors and says they have responded positively to what the government is doing.

Doctors Manitoba, the professional association that represents physicians, declined to comment.

The province's collective agreement with Manitoba's 12,000 nurses expires in 11 days.

Manitoba Nurses Union president Sandi Mowat said she remains hopeful they will be able to negotiate a good deal. A further 11,000 health-sector employees represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees will also see their contracts expire at the end of this month. In total, Rebeck says 30,000 employees in the health sector have contracts expiring on March 31.

"It's extremely disappointing that the government's chosen to undermine the collective bargaining process. Certainly there's a place for these types of discussions and it's not through legislation. It's at the bargaining table," Mowat told CBC News.

Limiting health-sector bargaining units

Goertzen also introduced a second bill designed to reduce the number of collective bargaining units in the health sector.

Manitoba has over 180 separate bargaining units and The Health Sector Bargaining Unit Review Act aims to decrease that figure to less than 50.

A commissioner will be appointed to oversee the restructuring, the bill notes.

Across western Canada, as Pallister has noted, provinces have fewer health bargaining units. Officials with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour confirmed there are 15 in the health sector; there are four bargaining units in Alberta, labour officials confirmed.

​Also on Monday, the government introduced legislation to allow ride-booking services like Uber,  allow five per cent annual tuition increases, get ahead of possible marijuana legalization by prohibiting marijuana in cars and change election finance rules.

With files from The Canadian Press