Public-sector wage freeze doesn't violate workers' Charter rights: Manitoba government

The Government of Manitoba has filed its legal argument in response to the court challenge by public sector unions against a legislated wage freeze.

Legal defence filed to unions' court challenge

The government says it is within its constitutional rights to legislate a wage freeze, in court documents filed Monday. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The Manitoba government says it's within its rights to impose a two-year wage freeze on workers, in a statement of defence rebutting a court challenge launched by public-sector unions.

The Public Services Sustainability Act had been met with fervent opposition from labour groups, who argue the legislation infringes on their right of association under the The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Bill 28 would freeze public sector wages for two years as each collective agreement expires, followed by 0.75 per cent in the third year, and one per cent in the fourth.

The 15-page statement of defence filed Monday in the Court of Queen's Bench argues the provincial government is within its constitutional and legislative rights to impose the bill. 

The Manitoba Federation of Labour, along with over two dozen labour unions, launched its court challenge in July, asking the Court of Queen's Bench for an injunction against the bill and a declaration that the wage freeze is unconstitutional.

Monday's court filing rejects that notion, arguing that the province's high deficit, rising expenditures and increasing debt servicing costs give the government the legislative right to enact laws dealing with the "labour relations and fiscal matters that it determines is in the public interest."

The statement outlines several steps the government has allegedly taken to ensure the bill does not infringe on collective bargaining or workers' rights under the Charter:

  • It does not alter existing collective agreements
  • Permits bargaining to continue on other issues such as working conditions, health and safety and job security, including no-layoff clauses
  • It allows for an increase in wages "if real savings can be realized," such as addressing overtime costs
  • protects the right to strike
  • It is limited to a maximum of four years
  • Permits the Lieutenant Governor in Council to exempt persons or classes of persons from the operation of the legislation

Unions reviewing the documents

The court challenge was launched by a collection of public sector unions, including those representing government workers, nurses, teachers and others — more than 110,000 workers and over two dozen unions in total.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck says unions want to protect services and wages. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC News)

The unions have alleged they were not properly consulted prior to the bill's introduction, which the government denies.

The statement of defence outlines meetings in January and February, prior to the introduction of the bill, where the government met with union representatives and presented an update on the province's finances.

In a February meeting, it is alleged the government gave Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck a run-down of the possible legislative approaches for public sector wages: reopening collective agreements, extending existing agreements, mandating wage settlement amounts, changing merit increments, changing pensions and imposing a reduced work week.

In a subsequent meeting, the government alleges the union offered alternatives to this, including reviewing its tax policy regarding exemptions, rates and tax brackets — but offered nothing to quell labour costs aside from an idea to create a working group to examine opportunities to reduce overtime wage costs.

Bill 28 was introduced the next month.

"We're very disappointed the government's not willing to negotiate at a bargaining table. They're choosing the heavy-handed approach of legislation to get their way," Rebeck said earlier this year.

It reached royal assent in June but has yet to be proclaimed.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour said in a written statement that it and partners are still reviewing the court documents, but intend to file "further evidence soon."

'Controls growth in wages'

The government also states it has no legal duty to consult regarding the passage of legislation — noting unions were heard on May 8, 2017 during the legislative committee hearings on Bill 28.

The response also says there does not need to be an economic crisis for legislation to be introduced. It estimates that labour costs are 73 per cent of the health budget in 2016-17 and in total $9.6 billion per year is paid through wages, benefits and compensation to the province's 123,000 public sector workers. 

"It merely controls growth in wages so government can reduce the deficit over time," it states. 

"The benefits obtained through the (bill) far outweigh any detrimental impact suffered by the Plaintiffs as a consequence of the temporally restricted ability to negotiate a salary beyond that provided in the statute."

With files from the Canadian Press