It took veteran union firebrand Paul Moist to spot the elephant in the room Monday night — he reckons the Supreme Court will squelch the Pallister government’s wage-control bill.
"The Supreme Court of Canada will reject it as a violation of our rights to collective bargaining," Moist told a public hearing Monday night on Bill 28.
"It’s neanderthal, the Supreme Court won’t agree with it, and it doesn’t cut the mustard with workers," thundered Moist, who worked for the Canadian Union of Public Employees for 32 years. "The right to go to the table as equals... is fundamental to our country," said Moist, going eyeball to eyeball across the table with Finance Minister Cameron Friesen.
For more than two hours, public-sector labour leaders and private citizens spoke against the bill before Moist addressed the hearing, calling the bill a betrayal, oppressive, undervalued, hypocritical and heavy-handed.
The legislation will freeze 120,000 public-sector workers’ wages for two years and hold down their pay for an additional two years.
But while several leaders said the bill is unconstitutional, Moist was the first to say out loud that labour will take the wage-control bill to court.
Bill 28, officially the Public Services Sustainability Act, is retroactive to March 20 and will become law June 1.
It imposes on about 120,000 public employees wage controls on their next collective bargaining agreement. Wages will be frozen for the first two years, with a maximum 0.75 per cent increase in the third year and a maximum one per cent in the fourth year.
Not enough consultation: labour
Labour pointed out repeatedly that for all the promises of consultation, it was only the second time they’ve been in a room with Friesen — the previous occasion was Jan. 5.
They have never met with Premier Brian Pallister.
"The important contribution of nurses is lost on this government. What it says to nurses is, our work is not valued," charged Manitoba Nurses Union president Sandi Mowat, calling the bill oppressive and hypocritical.
Friesen disagreed, and argued that many PC caucus members have nurses in their families. "I take exception to that," said Friesen.
The finance minister said he was asking everyone in Manitoba to take on a $900-million deficit through "a four-year rolling period of adjustment."
Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Norm Gould took on that claim. "It is a provincial deficit, it is not a public-sector deficit. When you say all hands on deck, it’s all hands on deck and not just one sector."
Gould said Friesen was paying lip service to unions.
Bill 28 is unfair, unnecessary and unconstitutional, Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck told the hearing. During the election campaign, "Brian Pallister promised to protect front-line services and the people who deliver them. It’s clear this government has been fixated on a heavy-handed legislative approach," he said. "The government has refused to discuss our proposals."
Recruiting and retention have become major problems — and wage controls will make it worse, said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union. "People are feeling undervalued and overworked," she said.
Best way to reduce government costs: CFIB
One lone voice spoke up to laud Friesen and Pallister. Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told the hearing that public-sector workers make 28 per cent more than comparable private-sector workers.
"Bill 28 is the best way to begin reducing government costs," said Alward, whose members overwhelmingly favour reducing the civil service through attrition.
New Democrat MLA Tom Lindsey challenged Alward: "How would your members respond if the government told them they can’t make any more profit tomorrow than you do today?"
"Good faith negotiations will cease to exist," declared Dr. Aaron Chiu, president of Doctors Manitoba. "Bill 28 will worsen further Manitoba’s limited physician supply, which is already below the Canadian average."
Chiu said medical students are telling him the wage controls will affect their decision to stay here after graduation. When the Filmon Tories took similar action in 1993, Chiu said, "The result was an exodus of physicians from Manitoba."
Friesen pointed out that Saskatchewan just set a target to cut public-sector wages 3.5 per cent. By that standard, Friesen said, "This bill is quite reasonable."
Occupational therapist Kaitlyn Braun said she felt fear, frustration, anger and disappointment when she heard about Bill 28. "This is the government penalizing front-line workers for their management, or mismanagement. You are saying, service workers are not valued, and neither is the work you do," said Braun, who wouldn’t say where she lives or works.
Gender rights activist Michelle McHale ruffled Tory feathers when she accused the government of perpetuating a racist and sexist system that holds down marginalized people.
Tory Wayne Ewasko demanded she apologize, but McHale said that low-income people, people suffering from mental-health issues and people without education wouldn’t know how to come to the committee and address the hearing.
Low-wage workers affected
More than 30,000 public employees had their previous collective bargaining agreement expire March 31, almost all of them health-care workers, and including the Manitoba Nurses Union. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association is also without a deal.
"Many people affected by this legislation live on very low wages," said Lee McLeod, a representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Friesen restricted his Jan. 5 meeting to a few unions, said Marianne Hladun, regional executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Her members care for veterans at Deer Lodge Centre, Hladun said, and others are teachers’ assistants at the University of Winnipeg who barely make minimum wage and now face a freeze.
"There’s nothing new in blaming the unions," scoffed John Arthur, president of the Manitoba Association of Government Engineers.
Friesen and Pallister have never consulted the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ 2,800 members with Manitoba Hydro, assistant business manager Ken Woodley told the hearing. "The government has not made a single overture to consult. This bill robs our members of the right to be part of the solution, and instead blames them."
Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Workers, noted that the agenda listed his name as ‘Morose’: "That’s a rather ironic typo," he said.
Moroz said that labour unions came up with ways for the Pallister government to balance the budget within eight years, but the Tories weren’t open to listening, instead telling his members, "They are nothing more than a cost, that they don’t matter."
Presenters had been expected to be heard Tuesday evening, but all scheduled speakers who showed up were heard Monday night. MLAs are now beginning second reading debate on the bill.
Meanwhile, a second hearing nearby is considering Bill 29, which would severely reduce the number of health care bargaining units.