A court ruling that struck down the Manitoba government’s public-sector wage freeze as a violation of collective bargaining rights was overturned by a higher court Wednesday.
The provincial Court of Appeal ruled the government was within its rights to legislate the wage freeze. It said the original Court of Queen’s Bench judge erred in deciding the legislation violated bargaining rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“While there can be no doubt that the imposition of wage restraint legislation … impacts or interferes with the collective bargaining process, the case law establishes that the type of legislative interference does not amount to ‘substantial interference’ when it is broad-based and for a limited period of time,” Chief Justice Richard Chartier wrote on behalf of the three-member appeals panel.
Moreover, the government removed only wages from the bargaining table, not any other issue, Chartier added.
Public sector labour groups said they are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Unions believe in free and fair collective bargaining. It works, and we don’t think governments should be tipping the scales (and) dictating outcomes,” Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said on behalf of the unions representing some 120,000 civil servants, health-care workers, teachers and others.
The Progressive Conservative government introduced the wage-freeze bill in 2017 and said it was necessary to address growing annual deficits.
The bill called for any new public-sector collective agreement to start with a two-year wage freeze, followed by pay increases of 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.
The bill was passed by the legislature but never proclaimed into law, and the government held out the possibility of amending it. The unions said, however, that government negotiators acted as if the wage freeze was firmly in place.
A Court of Queen’s Bench judge last year called the bill “draconian”, ruled it invalid, and said the government should have tried to negotiate before resorting to legislation.
The appeals court panel said that was an error.
“There is no legal prerequisite on governments to consult or negotiate prior to passing legislation,” Chartier wrote.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding welcomed the ruling. When asked whether the government might try to legislate more wage freezes in the future, he said the Tories prefer negotiations.
“We want to have groups at the bargaining table making decisions, that’s the most preferable approach.”
The government’s court victory was not complete.
The appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling that found the government violated collective bargaining rights during contract talks at the University of Manitoba in 2016.
In that case, the university had already offered a seven per cent wage increase over four years when the government interrupted the process and ordered the university to seek a one-year wage freeze.
The trial judge did not commit any errors in finding those actions an infringement on the collective bargaining process, the appeals court ruled.
Despite the wage-freeze bill, some groups have managed to secure higher salaries.
A recent tentative agreement with the Manitoba Nurses Union, retroactive to 2017, includes wage hikes totalling 9.6 per cent over seven years.