Manitoba public sector workers asking court to stop province’s wage freeze

Unions representing some 110,000 public-sector workers in Manitoba are asking a judge for an injunction against the provincial government’s plan for a two-year wage freeze.

The Progressive Conservative government’s decision last year to pass legislation imposing the freeze was a violation of the right to collective bargaining for nurses, teachers, civil servants and others, union lawyer Garth Smorang told court Tuesday.

“The government did not engage in discussion or good-faith consultation,” Smorang said. “The die was cast. There was no open mind.”

The government passed the bill last year as it started to cut the deficit. The legislation mandates pay increases of zero, zero, 0.75 and one per cent over four years.

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Smorang said the move violates the freedom of association under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and pointed to legal precedents from British Columbia and other jurisdictions.

In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a B.C. law which gutted parts of collective agreements for health-care workers. The high court ruled the government interfered in the workers’ right to bargaining.

The high court ruled the government was not prevented from legislating labour provisions but, in essentially replacing negotiated contracts, it had a duty to consult the unions before it acted.

The Manitoba government’s statement of defence says it is within the charter because the wage freeze only kicks in as each collective agreement expires. Current contracts are not being altered.

Smorang said the Tory government did not listen to suggestions from unions about possible alternatives to wage controls. The unions told the government the deficit could be cut more slowly, or by delaying promised cuts to income and sales taxes, he said.

Instead, Smorang said, the government decided to act like the last Tory government in the 1990s, when civil servants had to take unpaid days off.

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The wage-freeze bill was passed by the legislature last year but has not been enacted, and union leaders say it is already affecting contract talks because employers feel bound by it.

The injunction hearing is scheduled to wrap up Wednesday. The injunction, if granted, would be temporary until the unions’ challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is heard later. A date has not been set.

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