Wage-control bill court challenge nears end

A court challenge to the provincial government's public-sector wage-control bill has entered its final stage.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/02/2020 (954 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A court challenge to the provincial government’s public-sector wage-control bill has entered its final stage.

Closing arguments began Tuesday in the lawsuit by more than two dozen unions against the Public Services Sustainability Act, which was passed by the Manitoba legislative assembly in 2017 but never proclaimed into law.

Even before the closing arguments began, however, there was controversy when a lawyer acting on behalf of organized labour asked the trial judge to strike references the government’s final court submission to a bill before the legislature that would amend the PSSA.

Most members of the Manitoba Nurses Union have been without a contract since March 2017. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Government lawyers should have raised Bill 9 during the evidence phase of the trial — where it would have faced scrutiny — instead of leaving it to their closing submission, said union lawyer Garth Smorang.

“The position of the plaintiffs (the unions) is that the document should not, therefore, be before the court in any respect,” he told Madam Justice Joan McKelvey of Court of Queen’s Bench.

The new bill is part of the PSSA’s legislative history, and is “unlikely” the PSSA in its current form will become law, responded government lawyer Michael Conner.

McKelvey reserved her decision on the unions’ motion.

The PSSA mandates a two-year wage freeze as each new public-sector collective agreement is negotiated. Wage increases are limited to 0.75 per cent and one per cent in the third and fourth years, respectively, of any new deals.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour and 28 unions representing more than 110,000 workers are asking the court to strike down the legislation, introduced as Bill 28 nearly three years ago. They argue it is unconstitutional, as it unfairly denies free collective bargaining.

In November, the government said in its opening statement before the court that the PSSA, which received royal assent on June 2, 2017, may never become law and “is having no legal effect on anyone.”

A month earlier, the government sought to adjourn the trial, as it introduced a bill that would have amended the unproclaimed legislation. It later withdrew the adjournment request, and the bill died on the order paper when the session ended.

The new bill (reintroduced in November) would provide the government with more flexibility in how it implements its wage-control legislation.

It would give the provincial cabinet discretion to exempt a collective agreement or portions of an agreement from the law if, for example, the government needed to pay higher wages to attract certain types of workers.

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck says with the threat of Bill 28 hanging over them, union members have signed contracts under duress. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

However, the main provisions of the PSSA would remain.

According to the Manitoba Federation of Labour, there are 111,651 workers who are members of the unions involved in the lawsuit. Of those, only 8,865 have reached a collective agreement since Bill 28 was passed.

Most members of the Manitoba Nurses Union, for instance, have been without a contract since March 2017. The collective agreement between the province and its nearly 13,000 civil servants expired in March 2019.

Those who have signed collective agreements following the PSSA’s dictates have done so under duress, said MFL president Kevin Rebeck.

If organized labour wins its lawsuit, he expects those unions will demand to go back to the bargaining table to negotiate wages, he said.

“Our hope and expectation is that the judge gives clear direction that returning to the bargaining table is part of the appropriate remedy,” Rebeck said Tuesday.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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