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As anyone who’s ever played the ageless parlour game charades can tell you, it’s the time limit that makes all the gesturing and posturing and cajoling and contorting so tricky. Eventually, the clock will run out.
That’s what happened this week to the legislative charade known as the Pallister government’s Public Services Sustainability Act, when it was struck down in Court of Queen’s Bench in a decision that could only be described as emphatic.
Calling the legislation "a draconian measure which limits and reduces a union’s bargaining power" in her 224-page decision, Judge Joan McKelvey effectively declared that the controversial wage-freeze legislation — which was passed in the legislature in 2017 but never proclaimed into law — violated the constitutional rights of public-sector workers by denying them their right to collective bargaining.
The PSSA, also known as Bill 28, sought to impose a two-year wage freeze on public-sector workers once their existing contracts lapsed, followed by a 0.75 per cent increase in the third year and a one per cent increase in the fourth.
Without being proclaimed, the PSSA had a profound effect on all public-sector contracts that came up for renewal after its passage, since government negotiators used it as a cudgel at the bargaining table despite its never having become law.
"The overall impact of the legislation on a process of collective bargaining rises to the level of substantial interference," the decision noted. "The legislation circumvents and compresses the leverage or bargaining power available and inhibits the unions’ ability to trade off monetary benefits for non-monetary enhancements."
Judge McKelvey stated that the 21 collective agreements signed since Bill 28’s passage were "negotiated under duress." Those contracts affect 8,800 public-sector employees — only a fraction of the 120,000 unionized workers represented by the unions involved in the successful court challenge.
She also dismissed outright the financial-crisis argument that initially underpinned the Pallister government’s passage of Bill 28, noting that by the time the case was argued in court, the province had abandoned that rationale. Also while the case was before the court, the government introduced additional legislation to amend the PSSA.
The province’s only comment on the decision on Thursday came in the form of a written response that stated in part, "We will take the time to carefully review the decision and assess appeal considerations."
By all means, the government should exercise due diligence in reviewing the court decision. Then it should abandon the PSSA as the ill-advised endeavour it has been since its introduction. And then get back to the necessary business of bargaining in good faith with the unions that represent public sector workers — those whose front-line efforts have been lauded by the premier as heroic during the pandemic, as well as the ones whose efforts have been marginalized by his threats of layoffs and demands that they take unpaid days off to show they’re part of the "Team Manitoba" drive to rein in COVID-19 costs.
The PSSA, in form and function, was a fatally flawed bill, seemingly driven more by animosity than by sound legislative intent. For evidence that Bill 28 was a non-starter from the outset, one need look no further than the government’s own reluctance to take the final legislative step of proclaiming it.
It’s time to put a stop to the protracted courtroom contortions and end the charade. For a public-sector workforce that deserves the right to fairly negotiated agreements, this is not a game.
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