August 20, 2017

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Labour braces for legislative storm

Tories to introduce bills Monday that target wide range of public-sector workers

The Pallister Tories will finally make public on Monday just how far they’re willing to go to control public-sector wages.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen has placed the Public Services Sustainability Act on the order paper to be delivered Monday afternoon.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Finance Minister Cameron Friesen</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen

Monday is the deadline to get legislation expected to be contested by the opposition passed before the session ends June 1.

The government is suspected to be planning to impose a wage freeze on public servants. It isn’t clear whether that will extend to every Manitoba employee who draws a salary from the public purse.

Friesen and Premier Brian Pallister haven’t said whether they will legislate the opening of contracts — a move that’s sure to be challenged by unions in court.

Also Monday, Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen will table the Health Sector Bargaining Unit Review Act.

Pallister said in his state of the province address in December that the health-care sector has 169 bargaining units, which he said he wants reduced into fewer and more efficient units.

The postsecondary education system is anxious to know why Education Minister Ian Wishart is tabling the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act Monday — changing an extensive law that limits increases in tuition fees to the rate of inflation.

Pallister has said repeatedly it’s "all hands on deck" to bring government spending under control and that about $10 billion of the $13 billion the province spends each year goes to salaries and benefits.

"These bills are a mystery — we’re in the dark," Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said Thursday.

Public-sector labour leaders have met twice with government officials, but have no clue how far Friesen will go, he said.

Rebeck said the Tories could have chosen to pursue their goals through bargaining.

"We’re really surprised to see the legislation so soon. What’s the urgency? Why do we have to move to the heavy hand of legislation?" he said.

Rebeck said he will be in the public gallery Monday, but does not expect labour to hold rallies yet.

"We really do need to understand what’s being tabled and what’s at stake before we get people fired up," he said.

There are about 32,000 public employees whose collective agreements expire March 31, almost all of them working in health care.

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association’s one-year deal also expires at month’s end.

The collective bargaining agreement of the Manitoba General and Government Employees’ Union has another couple of years to run — and that’s an enormous amount of money.

As another example, teachers’ deals run until June 30, 2018, and they are due two 1.5 per cent raises in the 2017-18 school year — increases far beyond what the Pallister government has made clear it finds tolerable.

It was the last collective agreement between the U of M and its faculty that revealed the Tories’ strategy.

The province told the two sides to take a one-year wage freeze as a "pause" year to control costs. They eventually did so, but not before UMFA went on strike for three weeks over improved working conditions.

An official with the University of Winnipeg said Wishart has not told the school what he’s tabling. The U of M is similarly waiting for news Monday afternoon.

Students are very worried that the province could lift the tuition cap, said Michael Barkman, Manitoba representative for the Canadian Federation of Students.

"Affordable and accessible education benefits all Manitobans, not just students. Tuition fees remain the number one barrier to access post-secondary education," Barkman said.

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson also has three bills coming Monday: the Election Financing Amendment Act and the Elections Amendment Act, as well as the Cannabis Harm Prevention Act that would have been tabled Thursday, but was held back because Stefanson was sick.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Nick Martin.

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History

Updated on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at 10:39 AM CDT: Updates

11:15 AM: Corrects typo in headline.

March 17, 2017 at 7:48 AM: Updated

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