The Pallister government is seeking an adjournment of a trial to examine the constitutionality of its public-sector wage law, after introducing amendments to the legislation Monday.
A lawyer for the province wrote to Queen’s Bench Judge James G. Edmond seeking the adjournment shortly after Finance Minister Scott Fielding introduced Bill 2, the Public Services Sustainability Amendment Act, in the Manitoba legislature.
"We listened to employers and employees, and so the amendments we are making today... we think will make the bill even stronger," Fielding told reporters after the bill was introduced.
He did not mention the government’s court application, which the Free Press learned about from a union official.
A coalition of labour groups is fighting the Public Services Sustainability Act in court. The legislation, passed in 2017 but still to be proclaimed, dictates wage increases of no more than zero, zero, 0.75 per cent and one per cent in public-sector contracts over a four-year period.
A trial is scheduled to begin in Court of Queen’s Bench on Nov. 18.
"This was a trial that was scheduled a year-and-a-half ago. So we think this is pretty disrespectful, not just to workers but to the court process, where we were looking to defend our charter right to collective bargaining," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.
Rebeck said MFL lawyers were copied on the government’s letter to the judge seeking the adjournment.
The letter advises the judge about the planned amendments and adds: "In light of this material change in circumstances, the government will be seeking an adjournment of the trial."
Government and labour lawyers had planned to meet with the judge Tuesday for a pre-trial conference. The government’s lawyer said the two sides could discuss the adjournment request at that time.
"We feel very much that they’re gaming the system here," Rebeck said of the government’s tactics.
"Of course, we’re looking at a careful legal analysis of the amendments. But we really feel they’re just tinkering around the edges of a bad law that’s unconstitutional."
Bill 2 appears to give the government more flexibility in how it implements its wage-control legislation.
Fielding said it provides more flexibility around the timing and duration of the wage-restraint period. It gives cabinet discretion to exempt a collective agreement or portions of an agreement from the law if, for example, the government needs to pay higher wages to attract certain types of workers.
The minister said the amended law would also be fairer in it would allow the government to shorten the restraint period where a bargaining unit has already seen wage freezes and very low pay increases. He said the government wanted to ensure workers were not subject to the dictates of the law more than once.
Fielding did not respond directly when asked if the amendments could also allow the government to impose agreements stingier than what is called for under the PSSA.
"The intent of the bill is to provide more flexibility" is all that he would say.
Asked point blank whether the proposed amendments relate to the court case launched by labour groups over the constitutionality of the PSSA, Fielding responded: "This isn’t about the court case. This is about improving the legislation to make it even stronger."
Flin Flon NDP MLA Tom Lindsey said he is concerned the amendments would give more power to cabinet or the minister.
"The danger of that is the minister now gets to decide who he likes and who he doesn’t, which group might get a raise, which group might not get a raise," Lindsey said. "It’s the minister interfering with all collective agreements."
Meanwhile, Rebeck said he does not expect an immediate ruling by the judge on the government’s adjournment request.
He said Tuesday’s pre-trial meeting will be held in private.
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.
Updated on Monday, October 7, 2019 at 10:10 PM CDT: Updates headline