A labour coalition representing more than 110,000 public-sector workers has sued the provincial government in Court of Queen's Bench over its wage-control Bill 28.
The coalition is also seeking an injunction to prevent Premier Brian Pallister's government from proclaiming Bill 28 into law.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck told reporters the legal actions were filed Tuesday but he had no idea when the case would get to a courtroom.
"We recognize it takes some time," he said.
The coalition contends that Bill 28 — officially the Public Services Sustainability Act — is unconstitutional and interferes with workers' rights to free collective bargaining.
The legislature has passed the bill, but cabinet has not yet proclaimed it into law.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Pallister government fired back, accusing labour of creating an unfortunate distraction from most Manitobans' real priorities.
Bill 28 dictates that in their next collective bargaining agreement, workers' salary and benefits will be frozen in the first two years, increase .75 per cent the third year and one per cent the fourth year.
The collective bargaining agreements of about 30,000 health-care workers and the University of Manitoba Faculty Association expired March 31. Rebeck said bargaining so far has been slow, and employers are refusing to put anything on the table beyond what Bill 28 would allow.
He said that the coalition represents 25 unions covered by the bill. The only affected public employees who are not part of the coalition are doctors.
Rebeck said that Finance Minister Cameron Friesen was the only politician to meet with labour representatives — once in January — in four sessions with provincial officials.
"We haven't met with a decision-maker (since)," he said, adding the labour reps presented practical ideas and proposals to control spending, but based on the government's failure to respond, it's clear the plan was already in place.
But the government is still asking labour to work collaboratively to find solutions, said Olivia Billson, a spokeswoman for Friesen.
"For far too long under the previous NDP administration, expenditure growth dramatically outpaced revenue growth. If we continued down that path, our deficit would reach $1.7 billion by 2019," she said. "Deficits of that magnitude threaten the province’s ability to sustain the front-line services Manitoba families depend on. That’s why our government continues to ask for ‘all hands on deck’ as we address these serious inherited challenges.
"Responsibly bending the cost curve and moving back towards balance will require new approaches across the entire broader public sector."
Rebeck didn't say whether labour has any legal precedents of similar circumstances to take to court. "We believe we have a strong case," he said.
The 46-page statement of claim pays particular attention to bargaining last fall between UMFA and the University of Manitoba. It cites evidence from a Manitoba Labour Board hearing on the province's imposition of a one-year wage freeze and a directive to the university not to share that information with the bargaining unit.
The lawsuit alleges: "The (act) unilaterally removes the rights of the plaintiff unions to engage in a process of good faith collective bargaining with the defendant and with other public-sector employers with whom they have collective agreements..."
The document argues Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms "protects employees' interest in not being forced to work under terms and conditions of employment which are coerced, dictated and imposed by the state."