Premier Brian Pallister’s government was embarrassed last fall when the University of Manitoba went public with a wage offer of seven per cent over four years just as Finance Minister Cameron Friesen first spoke publicly about controlling spending.
University of Manitoba associate vice-president of human resources Gregory Juliano testified at a Manitoba Labour Board hearing Friday.
He said Rick Stevenson, assistant deputy minister of labour relations, said the situation "was embarrassing for the government."
"It was highly likely the government would be moving on public-sector wage controls," he said.
The university had just disclosed its Sept. 13 offer of seven per cent over four years by posting it on the university website.
That disclosure coincided with a Sept. 30 Free Press article headlined There’s a New Sheriff in Town, in which Friesen first spoke about controlling public-sector spending.
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association has filed an unfair labour practice charge against the university over bargaining last fall, which led to a one-year government-mandated wage freeze and improved working conditions agreed upon after a three-week strike.
Juliano said that in the initial contact with Stevenson on the evening of Sept. 30, the university was told not to offer anything more than it had tabled Sept. 13.
Stevenson had told him not to disclose anything about the province’s consideration of public-sector wage controls to the faculty association.
By Oct. 6, the government had ordered a freeze, Juliano testified Friday.
He met that day with Stevenson and Gerry Irving, secretary of the planning and priorities secretariat.
"I had no idea the bomb they were going to drop on us," Juliano said.
Juliano said the two officials made it clear not obeying would lead to consequences not favourable to the U of M.
"It wasn’t very specific — it would lead to some financial consequences for the university," Juliano said.
"I don’t think the tone was meant to be threatening, but there was a clear indication that anything other than compliance would be damaging."
Juliano testified he told Stevenson at the Sept. 30 meeting, "We couldn’t go backward in our bargaining unless we had an order to do so and he agreed with my sentiment."
Even after that first contact from the province, the union could still have accepted the Sept. 13 offer.
The next bargaining session was Oct. 3 — a Monday — said Juliano. Under aggressive questioning Friday from UMFA lawyer Garth Smorang, he would not agree the university was not legally obligated to follow Stevenson’s directions and would not agree fair labour practice legislation required the university to tell the union what the government was doing.
"We had not made that determination at that point," Juliano said.
He said in the Oct. 6 meeting, Irving and Stevenson told him while the faculty association is a small bargaining unit, it could not be allowed to have a wage increase because it would establish a precedent for far larger bargaining units — such as the Manitoba Nurses Union, whose own bargaining was yet to come.
The hearing is expected to continue in June.
The wage-control Bill 28 goes to public hearings Monday and Tuesday and will become law by June 1, though it will be retroactive to March 20.
It imposes on 120,000 public-sector workers in their next collective bargaining agreements a wage freeze in the first two years, a maximum increase of 0.75 per cent in the third year and a maximum one per cent in the fourth year.