Manitoba's highest court has dealt the Pallister government another blow in its bid to restrain public-sector wages.
In a ruling this week, the Manitoba Court of Appeal said the government was "unreasonable" when it refused to allow the provincial civil service contract to go to binding arbitration.
The ruling paves the way for potential wage increases to 12,000 civil servants, who have been without a contract since March 2019.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding had refused to allow a Manitoba Government and General Employees Union request that an arbitration board be appointed to settle the contract after the union deemed that bargaining had reached an impasse.
He argued the two sides had not bargained sufficiently long to justify the appointment of an arbitration panel that would settle any outstanding issues between the two sides. Wages are the main bone of contention.
Hanging over the contract negotiations is the Pallister government's 2017 Public Services Sustainability Act, which was passed by the Manitoba legislature but never proclaimed. It calls for wage freezes in the first two years of any new public-sector union contract followed by increases of no more than 0.75 per cent and one per cent in years 3 and 4.
The legislation, despite not being proclaimed, has already been struck down in Court of Queen's Bench. The government is appealing the ruling.
Madam Justice Freda M. Steel, writing on behalf of the Court of Appeal, said the Civil Service Act "clearly indicates" that the minister has "no discretion to refuse to appoint an arbitration board if he has received a request; he 'shall' appoint."
"Factually, there is no question that the preconditions for the appointment of an arbitration board had been fulfilled," she wrote. "Negotiations had begun; a collective agreement had not been reached; and the MGEU had requested that the minister appoint an arbitration board, setting out, in its requests, the 'matters on which agreement (could not) be reached,' and a statement of difficulties involved in settling the dispute."
It now appears the government will be forced to pay higher wages to its civil servants.
Earlier this year, Pembina Trails School Division teachers received wage increases, through arbitration, of 1.6, 1.4 and 0.5 per cent, plus a cost of living increase in the fourth year of a new collective agreement. Winnipeg School Division bus drivers were awarded arbitrated wage increases of two per cent for 2019 and 0.75 per cent for 2020.
MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said she was "elated" at the ruling, but also "disturbed and disgusted" that the union had to apply to the courts to force the government to do something that it was already required to do under provincial law.
While awaiting the results of the appeal (a lower court had already ruled in the union's favour), the province and the union tentatively set arbitration hearing dates in September.
"The government has not shown any indication that they’re willing to sit down and negotiate," Gawronsky said.
When the two sides bargained briefly in 2019, the government wouldn't say whether it would ever move from its wage-freeze stance, she said. It also threatened that it would remove any agreed-to items from the table if the union sought arbitration, she added.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding would not discuss the ruling after question period Thursday.
In answer to questions from the NDP in the legislature, he said the government "respect(s) the decisions of the courts."
Fielding also lamented that there had not been more time for bargaining before the MGEU applied for arbitration under the Civil Service Act.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew described the appeal court ruling in the legislature as "a win for thousands of families across our province."
Afterwards, he said the court decision is another sign the Pallister government is taking the "wrong approach" in its dealings with organized labour.
He also urged the government to allow an arbitrator to settle a dispute between striking IBEW workers and Manitoba Hydro.
David Camfield, a University of Manitoba labour studies professor, said the ruling is a further blow to the government's public-sector wage restrain policies.
He said the arbitrated settlement in the civil service contract would "set a benchmark" for future public sector agreements.
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.