Pallister's steady campaign to provoke unions

Winnipeg Free Press - Dan Lett

It is probably the understatement of the year to say that the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba cannot get along with its public sector unions.

A significant skirmish is underway at the Manitoba legislature over Bill 28, a law that would freeze public sector wages for two years and allow only very minimal increases over two additional years. Committee hearings into the bill, which start this week, are expected to be contentious as unions try to talk the government out of using legislation to accomplish what would normally be undertaken through collective bargaining.

While that is going on, a series of smaller skirmishes have broken out.

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association filed a complaint with the labour board alleging the province interfered in contract talks.

The Manitoba Teachers Society has launched a series of radio advertisements accusing Premier Brian Pallister and his government of breaking promises by rationing funding for the public education system.

The Manitoba Nurses Union, meanwhile, has been busy organizing protests at Winnipeg hospitals that are scheduled to see their emergency rooms closed.

Depending on your perspective, the Pallister government’s treatment of unions is either a grave injustice, or a welcome bit of tough love for organizations that got a free ride from the former NDP government. Regardless of what side you come down on, the reality is that Pallister and public sector unions do not get along.

And even if you think unions deserve a spanking in the post-NDP years, very little good can come from this almost constant sparring.

Interestingly, it did not have to be this way.

After winning the April 2016 election, Pallister had a real opportunity to build bridges with public sector unions that could have been used to lay the groundwork to discuss contentious issues such as wage freezes.

Instead, since Pallister took over government, there seems to be have been a slow, steady campaign to provoke unions.

Bill 28 is really just the culmination of a process that included legislation to frustrate union certifications, layoffs and a chronic unwillingness to meet face-to-face with union leaders. Nobody on the labour side of the equation had any illusions that relationships wouldn’t be different with a Tory government in control. Still, the anti-labour policies have been surprising in their tone and magnitude. The protests, media campaigns and the prospect of a legal challenge to Bill 28 are certainly evidence enough that the relationship between government and labour is bad. And at this week’s committee hearings, it will get worse.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Tory government made no real attempt to negotiate the wage freeze. There were at least a half-dozen meetings between union leaders and Gerry Irving, the province’s lead labour negotiator.

However, none of those meetings involved a discussion on specific government proposals. It appeared the government was interested only in using legislation to accomplish its wage-freezing goals.

The absence of a meaningful exchange with unions is a critical mistake in judgment by the province. Without a sincere attempt to use traditional negotiating to get what it wants on public sector wages, the province is somewhat vulnerable to a legal challenge. Bill 28 essentially suspends for four years all collective bargaining between the province and unions representing 120,000 public sector employees. That strategy seems destined to either fail, or lead to a prolonged delay in reaching an agreement on freezing wages.

However, it also suggests that balancing the budget — the chief reason that Pallister says he needs a wage freeze — is not the main goal of Bill 28. Pallister appears to be seeking a correction in public sector wages largely out of a concern that some groups gained too much while the NDP was in power. There is also evidence that Pallister may be seeking a wage freeze to help him cut taxes.

This theory is fed by the fact that even without wage freezes, the province appears to be well on the way to balancing the budget by the end of its second term, which was a core Tory election promise. Unions believe Pallister can in fact achieve what he wants, when he originally said he wanted it, without dramatic legislation to force a wage freeze on civil servants.

To back up this argument, the unions commissioned a fiscal analysis by Michael Benarroch, dean of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business. This was presented to the province in a bid to prompt the province to re-think its plan to use legislation to achieve wage savings.

Benarroch’s analysis assumes three per cent annual growth in revenues, and a two per cent annual growth in expenditures, numbers that are very consistent with the five-year forecast included in the most recent Tory budget. In his conclusion, Benarroch was able to heartily endorse Pallister’s original assertion that the budget could be balanced by fiscal year 2022-23.

Benarroch said only two things threaten this patient assault on the deficit. One is tax cuts — something that Pallister has said he is deeply committed to — and the other is the curious decision by the Tories to borrow money to restore the fiscal stabilization fund. Last month’s provincial budget indicated that additional borrowing would be undertaken to feed the fund. Benarroch said that decision will add needlessly to the debt at a time when the government is committed to improving its debt-to-equity ratio.

Pallister has consistently defended Bill 28 as the cost of balancing the budget. However, if balancing the budget was still the prime goal of this government, then the Tories would be making better decisions around tax cuts and borrowing.

And, perhaps most importantly, Pallister would park Bill 28 and seek wage concessions through negotiation to avoid costly legal delays and a non-stop torrent of protest and criticism from public sector unions.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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