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This article was published 17/7/2019 (440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If Manitoba doctors can successfully negotiate a tentative contract with the province in the face of a mandated wage freeze, there’s no reason other bargaining units can’t do the same.
Doctors Manitoba, which represent more than 3,000 physicians, has concluded a provisional, four-year deal with government. It includes freezes and caps on doctors’ pay, but it also contains some contract enhancements.
The Pallister government’s Bill 28 — which has still not been proclaimed into law (although it’s being treated as though it has) — calls for a two-year wage freeze for all public-sector workers, with maximum increases of 0.75 per cent and one per cent in years 3 and 4 of a contract. However, all other aspects are open to negotiations during the four-year "sustainability period."
Despite claims by public-sector unions the government has severely curtailed their ability to negotiate, bargaining agents are still free to negotiate most aspects of their contracts — which is exactly what Doctors Manitoba did.
"We are confident that this new agreement ensures a better future for all physicians and supports our commitment to your professional, economic and personal well-being," organization president Dr. Fourie Smith wrote this week in a memo to members, obtained by the Free Press.
Doctors still have to vote on the deal. It includes $2 million more for maternity/parental benefits, $1 million for the continuing medical education rebate program, $10 million in annual funding for physician retention, and the establishment of a master agreement governance committee to collaborate with government on the delivery of health services.
“Based on the significant input of physicians through working groups, countless meetings and conversations, we were able to advocate for the profession and reach an agreement that supports a productive relationship with government.” — Dr. Fourie Smith
All of this was negotiated. There was give and take on both sides, and a fair agreement for doctors and taxpayers was reached. This is how it’s done.
"Based on the significant input of physicians through working groups, countless meetings and conversations, we were able to advocate for the profession and reach an agreement that supports a productive relationship with government," wrote Smith.
These are tough financial times. The provincial government continues to run deficits and has an obligation to work towards a balanced budget. While some progress has been made over the past three years, Manitoba is still several years away from bringing the books back to balance.
In order to do that, the province has no choice but to control the salaries, benefits and other forms of remuneration of taxpayer-funded employees, which make up the largest part of government operations.
Doctors Manitoba appears to understand that stance (even though Smith says the government’s focus on fiscal restraint has "changed the landscape for physicians in Manitoba" and made the environment "increasingly uneasy").
That probably has a lot to do with the organization’s chief executive officer, Theresa Oswald, who served as health minister from 2006 to 2013 under the previous NDP government. Partisanship aside, Oswald understands how government works, likely recognizes the fiscal situation the province is in, and knows it’s in the best interest of her members to get the best deal possible within those parameters.
It’s unfortunate many public-sector unions, who are instead taking government to court over Bill 28, fail to grasp that reality. Their claim government is running roughshod over their collective bargaining rights is, at best, a gross exaggeration and, at worst, inaccurate. (Government’s move to consolidate health-care bargaining units, which is delaying contract talks for many, is of course a separate issue.)
Nothing in Bill 28 prevents any union from negotiating a collective agreement outside of the prescribed salary restrictions. In fact, there are provisions that allow wage increases beyond the caps for years 3 and 4, if savings can be negotiated in other areas. There’s plenty of room to bargain.
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled governments can impose wage freezes on public-sector workers in some circumstances, as long as it doesn’t substantially interfere with collective bargaining rights. Whether appellate courts ultimately agree the Pallister government has found that balance remains to be seen.
In the meantime, bargaining agents are free to negotiate in good faith, if they so choose. Doctors Manitoba did. And it was the right thing for their members and for the province as a whole.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
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