Public-sector pay freeze comes back to haunt Tories
$216M paid to nurses retroactively; more contracts on way
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/02/2022 (290 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Thousands more public-sector workers in Manitoba could get retroactive wage increases as contract talks resume after years of stagnant wages — more than $200 million has already been paid out to nurses.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said as many as 50,000 public-sector workers are waiting for new collective agreements following restructuring to bargaining units in the health-care sector as well as the government’s introduction of the Public Services Sustainability Act in 2017.
“Bargaining has been largely suspended in Manitoba for years now. We’re just starting to see some of that bargaining come to conclusion and fair wages being paid retroactively to workers who’ve had their wages frozen for years,” Rebeck said Wednesday.
About 23,000 public-sector employees — most in education — have won wages through arbitrated and negotiated settlements since the Public Services Sustainability Act was passed into law but not proclaimed, Rebeck said.
The act mandated a two-year wage freeze on new public-sector agreements, followed by pay increases of 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth year.
Last October, the Manitoba Nurses Union ratified a new agreement that included general salary increases of 1.25 per cent in 2017 and 2018, 1.4 per cent in 2019 and 0.5 per cent in 2020. Shared Health said the retroactive wage increases amounted to an estimated $216.7 million.
About $150 million has been set aside to cover the recent teacher salary settlements, the province said.
“Our recommendation would be that we never short-change public-sector workers, especially teachers and nurses,” MNU president Darlene Jackson said in a statement Tuesday.
In late November, the Tory government under Premier Heather Stefanson announced it would repeal the Public Services Sustainability Act.
Scott Fielding, who was finance minister at the time, said the government would continue to address the economic burden facing Manitobans while avoiding public-sector layoffs.
“All of these shared concerns are best served by a fresh start,” said Fielding, who was shuffled to the natural resources portfolio last month.
Rebeck said public sector employers are likely to pay out more retroactive wage increases as new agreements are reached. The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 204, which represents about 18,000 healthcare workers, is currently in negotiations for a new contract after nearly five years without.
“Government has no one to blame but themselves,” Rebeck said. “They’ve played games with the bargaining cycle to put off paying people a fair deal.
“Starving public sector wages so that you can try and claim that you are managing the books better, we see that the real result of that is you kicked it down the road and now it’s another premier’s problem,” he said.
A coalition of unions led by the MFL has also asked the Supreme Court of Canada to determine the constitutionality of the legislation following a protracted legal saga in which the Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s ruling in favour of the MFL.
A request for comment from Labour Minister Reg Helwer was not returned.
However, in a statement a spokesperson for the provincial government said in general, retroactive wage increases are provided “any time a collective agreement expires and a new collective agreement is reached.”
The spokesperson said the bargaining situation with nurses was “very unusual” as nurses had been without an agreement since 2017 because of restructuring that meant negotiations could not begin until 2020.
“The pandemic further delayed the process of merging 59 collective agreements into just six,” the spokesperson said.
To date, no retroactive wage payments have been made to core government workers, pending the outcome of a future arbitration award, the statement concluded.
Jackson said the government cannot afford to cut corners in health care or education and fair and prompt payment for work should not be delayed.
“There are few folks recommending the profession as a wise and compensated way to spend your days. Quite the opposite, in fact,” Jackson said. “One fruit of that labour was retro (earned pay) and although we have heard from (Health Minister Audrey Gordon), that expediting nurse back pay is a priority, we still have members who are without, waiting months.”
Rebeck said future agreements on retroactive wage increases in the public sector are likely to amount to a couple of per cent of the public payroll.
“It’s a scary number I’d love to see on a lottery ticket, but for the average person it’s just keeping up with the price of milk,” he said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.