Former union boss Robert Ziegler has a new job with the Manitoba government as the province's point man on all collective bargaining.
Ziegler, who retired in October 2011 after leading the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for nine years, was recently hired by the Selinger government as secretary to the compensation committee of cabinet effective Jan. 25.
The 57-year-old Ziegler, who spent more than 30 years as a UFCW organizer and leader, started work Jan. 6 to learn the ropes of the job before Lloyd Schreyer retires Jan. 24 after 14 years in the position. Ziegler's annual salary is $130,462.
Ziegler said he was hired because of his experience in labour relations -- not because of his NDP ties.
"I don't think this has anything to do with my labour history," Ziegler said Thursday. "I think they hired the best person for the job."
He said the position makes him responsible for the contracts of about 120,000 unionized civil servants and those in positions that are publicly funded, such as doctors, nurses, health-care support workers, judges, Crown attorneys and university employees.
He warned his union background won't make him a pushover at the bargaining table, and hinted the government is in almost the same spot in which it found itself in 2010 when then-finance minister Rosann Wowchuk asked all public employees to take a two-year wage freeze to deal with the mounting deficit.
"Clearly, the mandate and the financial situation is going to dictate that the settlements going forward -- they're going to be much lower than they have been in the past," he said. "It's just the ability to pay. The premier is committed to going back to balanced budget (by 2016-17). It's going to be very tough negotiations for the next little while."
Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said he wasn't so sure, as the NDP has shown no signs of reducing its spending.
"Let's hope that when this new appointee sits down at the negotiating table with his fellow union bosses, he remembers which side of the table he's supposed to sit on," Pallister said. "Let's just hope this political appointment doesn't continue the habit of being generous to political friends at the expense of Manitoba families."
Ziegler dismissed the criticism.
"My responsibilty is to the government of Manitoba, not to the trade union movement," he said. "I take that seriously. Will it be difficult? I don't think so. I know what my responsibilities are. I intend to represent the citizens of Manitoba in all the dealings that we are going to do."
He added proof is during his tenure as president at the UFCW, the province's largest private-sector union. Seventeen secretarial and support workers for the union went on strike in 2007 after bargaining talks broke down.
Ziegler also said the job wasn't handed to him on a platter, as he was one of a half-dozen people interviewed.
"I assume that because I was hired that I was the best applicant for the position."
He said he's been involved in numerous arbitration hearings and negotiated hundreds of collective agreements. He's also worked on a number of provincial bodies, including the joint labour management review committee to provide advice to government on union and employer issues and was the co-chairman of the premier's economic advisory council. He was also chairman of the province's pension commission.