Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province plans to freeze wages

Measure would help tackle expected $600-M budget deficit

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It's the Selinger government's version of the pause that refreshes.

But the NDP government's fiscal prescription has left a bad taste in the mouths of those who say the New Democrats have borrowed a page from the playbook of Gary Filmon's Tories to cut costs on the backs of civil servants.

Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk announced Tuesday the province wants a two-year wage freeze for its employees and the province's nurses.

Wowchuk said that freeze will help the province recover from a forecast $600-million budget deficit. If the unions don't agree, Wowchuk warns, the government will have to resort to layoffs and perhaps even legislated days off without pay.

Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Peter Olfert said the province's largest public sector union wasn't buying into Wowchuk's gloom.

"If the government is worried about the deficit, they need to get the economy going," he said. "You can't just slay the deficit on public sector workers. You have to grow the economy."

Olfert said despite Wowchuk's warning, the union still plans to present proposals for wage increases for its members. The MGEU's contract expires March 26.

"We're asking everybody to take a pause," Wowchuk said. "We are in difficult times and we have to have realistic expectations."

She said the freeze will allow the province to maintain services and not see any layoffs, or bring in unpaid days off for workers in the same way Filmon's Progressive Conservatives did in the mid-1990s.

"Filmon Fridays" were created in 1993 under reduced-work-week legislation that gave provincial government workers 10 unpaid days off each year. In the first year, the days off were legislated, but for the next five years, they were negotiated into the contracts of unionized workers.

Wowchuk said public employees have to share the burden of tough economic times.

She also said cabinet ministers will forgo a $1,000 raise due to take effect in April as part of government belt-tightening.

Premier Greg Selinger is also looking at freezing the base pay of all legislature members, which is scheduled to jump in April to $85,564 from $83,722 under a cost-of-living formula.

Opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said his party hasn't seen a proposal on an MLA pay freeze yet.

He said if the NDP really wanted to cut costs, it would nix controversial capital projects, like the new hydro line down the west side of the province in favour of a shorter east-side route.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation applauded Wowchuk's move.

"Private sector employees felt the pinch during the economic slowdown, public sector employees should too," CTF Prairie director Colin Craig said in a release. "The two-year wage freeze is something we recommended to the minister, so it's great to see her act on that recommendation."

Wowchuk said by freezing public sector salaries over two years, it will help the province in its five-year plan to get back in the black.

Health-care wages were about $3 billion in 2009 and civil servants' salaries were about $770 million, she said.

"Those are big costs," she said. "If we can contain those costs, maintain them where we are without having increases, then we can look at ensuring that we don't lay off people and maintain services.

"If we can get through these next two years that way, we should be in much better shape."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 17, 2010 A3

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