Manitoba finance minister promises 'fresh start' with public sector unions

The Manitoba government says it will repeal a wage-freeze bill for public-sector workers, despite a recent court victory.

The Manitoba government says it will repeal a wage-freeze bill for public-sector workers, despite a recent court victory.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding says the government wants a fresh start and a different approach.

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It’s the latest sign of change under Premier Heather Stefanson, who has promised a more collaborative approach than Brian Pallister, who resigned in September.

The bill was passed in the legislature in 2017 and required a two-year wage freeze, followed by two years of limited raises, for each new public-sector collective agreement.

The bill was never proclaimed into law, but unions said employers were acting as if it was firmly in place.

A Court of Queen’s Bench judge struck down the wage freeze as unconstitutional last year, but that decision was overturned in October by the Manitoba Court of Appeal.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened the economic burdens facing Manitoba families and businesses,” Fielding said in a news release Wednesday.

“Our government will continue to address these unprecedented challenges and pressures, while avoiding public sector layoffs and providing financial relief for all Manitobans. All of these shared concerns are best served by a fresh start.”

The Partnership to Defend Public Services, a group made up of unions representing some 120,000 civil servants, health-care workers, teachers and others, said it welcomed the bill’s repeal as “an important and long overdue step.”

“Manitoba’s unions have been calling for this to happen for over four years,” said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said on behalf of the unions.

“This harmful law has, and continues to negatively impact 120,000 working families, people who work hard every day to deliver the public services that we all count on.”

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The group of unions has previously vowed to appeal the October Manitoba Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court, and Rebeck said they still plan to go ahead with the action.

“As Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench and Court of Appeal issued drastically different rulings, we believe it is essential to have the law made clear for everyone by the Supreme Court,” he said.

“If the Stefanson government is serious about wanting to reset the relationship with workers and unions, we call on them to stop interfering in public sector bargaining and to make a clear and genuine commitment that the government will also not oppose our application to have the Supreme Court consider the constitutionality of wage-freeze legislation.”

The union representing faculty at the University of Manitoba –which is currently on strike and negotiating for a new contract — was wary of the government’s announcement.

“”Despite this morning’s announcement that the government will repeal the PSSA, UMFA members remain deeply concerned that the government will impose wage-freezes using a ‘different approach’, just as they did in 2016, 2020, and are attempting in 2021,” said University of Manitoba Faculty Association president, Orvie Dingwall.

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“The new Stefanson government should immediately cease all interference in the University of Manitoba, and University President Michael Benarroch should start defending the independence of the university, to ensure it remains competitive with Canada’s top research universities.”

–With files from Shane Gibson

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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