Brian Pallister may be gone from office, but Manitoba's former premier scored a win Wednesday when the Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld the wage freeze bill introduced by his government.
The three-judge panel issued a unanimous decision supporting the government, saying there was no "substantial" interference in collective bargaining that would amount to an infringement of freedom of association.
Critics say it's a "Pyrrhic victory" for the provincial government, and that freezing wages and cutting spending has left Manitoba with a hollowed-out civil service and lower-paying institutions that can't attract and retain health-care workers and professors.
"We were shocked and a bit disappointed by this ruling," said Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck.
"We're considering all our options, including the real possibility of appealing this to the Supreme Court," he said late Wednesday, noting they have 60 days to decide.
A coalition of 28 unions with the Manitoba Federation of Labour took the Progressive Conservative government to court after it passed — but never proclaimed into law — Bill 28 (the Public Services Sustainability Act) in 2017. It argued the measure was needed to help curb the deficit.
It set wage caps of 0 per cent, 0 per cent, 0.75 per cent and one per cent over a four-year period for the public service, and included both unionized and non-unionized employees, amounting to almost 20 per cent of Manitoba's workforce. The province didn't enact the law but used it to try to get unions to settle for a wage freeze.
Last year, a Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled the act was "draconian" and violated the right of 120,000 public-sector union members to meaningful collective bargaining. The government appealed the decision and won Wednesday.
When asked if the government would consider legislating a wage freeze for public-sector employees now that it has the Court of Appeal's blessing, Finance Minister Scott Fielding didn't rule it out, but he took a more conciliatory tone than Pallister, who had championed wage restraint.
"Our focus would be to continue discussions at the bargaining table as opposed to the legislation, but we're happy with the constitutionality that was upheld by the appeals court," he said.
Fielding said the Progressive Conservative government was left with "a mess" by the NDP but had balanced the budget prior to the pandemic. The costs associated with COVID-19 left Manitoba with a $2.1-billion deficit that, as of the first quarter this fiscal year, is down to $1.5 billion, Fielding said. "Money is tight (but) we need to put all the money we can towards fighting the pandemic and making sure Manitobans are protected," Fielding said.
"We want to look forwards as opposed to backwards."
So does the president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.
"Moving forward, not backward would be a good move and to do that at the bargaining table and build agreements that employers and workers can agree on is the best way to move forward. That has everyone buying into it, that allows people to move forward and not fall behind," said Rebeck.
"We really do hope with Pallister gone, his anti-union ways can be gone with him, and that we can forge a new relationship. I don't say this often, but I agree with the finance minister."
"We really do hope with Pallister gone, his anti–union ways can be gone with him, and that we can forge a new relationship. I don't say this often, but I agree with the finance minister." – Kevin Rebeck
Fielding said the government's "preference is always to work things out at the bargaining table. That's the process that we've engaged in for the most part as a government. We've seen some success on that, recently." The province and the Manitoba Nurses Union reached a tentative deal last week after nurses worked for more than four years without a collective agreement.
Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson called Wednesday's appeal court ruling "terrible news." The union, which represents 12,000 nurses, belongs to the Partnership to Defend Public Services, led by the Manitoba Federation of Labour.
"We believe strongly and why we started this court case — was to defend free and fair collective bargaining," Rebeck said. Since then, it's come to mean much more that, he said.
"This government's austerity measures — just leaving people without contracts for years upon years, while this has all been fought in court — have resulted in a lot of challenges, especially during a pandemic where we see health-care needs and nurse shortages happening," said Rebeck. "To be able to attract and retain people means freezing wages shouldn't be a real option," the labour leader said.
"It's a Pyrrhic victory for this government." – Liberal leader Dougald Lamont
"It's a Pyrrhic victory for this government," said Liberal leader Dougald Lamont.
The Court of Appeal may have ruled it was constitutional for the province to freeze wages but "we're living with the consequences of this," he said. "It's devastating for our universities and it's devastating for our health-care system."
The 53-page decision said that "while courts have a duty to ensure that laws enacted by legislatures are constitutional, it is important that they give legislatures reasonable room to manoeuvre in appropriate circumstances."
It cited case law stating that the role of the courts "is to protect against incursions on fundamental values, not to second-guess policy decisions."
In 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that New Brunswick's Expenditure Restraint Act was constitutional. On Wednesday, the Manitoba Court of Appeal said this province's wage restraint legislation is similar and also constitutional. It is "broad-based and time limited" and "didn't preclude a meaningful collective bargaining process from occurring on other important workplace matters."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.