Public-sector freeze unfair to workers

June 21, 2018

As published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Manitobans believe we should treat each other fairly and with respect, and we expect the same from our government. Unfortunately, fairness and respect do not appear to be values the Pallister government holds when it comes to the dedicated public-sector workers who work hard every day to deliver the services we all count on.

As a result of the government’s blatant disregard for the rights of working people, the Partnership to Defend Public Services — a coalition of 29 unions and labour organizations — is taking the Pallister government to court to stand up for the constitutionally protected right to free and fair collective bargaining.

For many years, Manitoba has avoided major labour unrest and experienced relatively few strikes and lockouts. This stable labour-relations climate was good for working families and for businesses alike, helping to support good, stable jobs and growing our economy.

This period of labour peace did not happen by accident. It was supported in our province by clear and fair rules that carefully and sensibly balanced the interests of workers and employers in the workplace to ensure fairness. Government worked with labour and business to support an environment in which collective bargaining could take place in a free and fair fashion and deals could be negotiated that worked for both sides.

When problems emerged, all parties came to the table and worked through them, together. They talked, they listened, they tried to understand each other’s perspectives, they problem-solved and they found compromises.

The preamble to Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act sets out the importance of collective bargaining: “It is in the public interest of the Province of Manitoba to further harmonious relations between employers and employees by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining between employers and unions as the freely designated representatives of employees.” Collective bargaining has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada as a right protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Collective bargaining works for several reasons. First, it requires workers to come together and prioritize things such as safer working conditions, fair wages and retirement plans and then negotiate their narrowed-down list with their employer.

Second, collective bargaining requires compromise. Just as employers do not want to see their operations halted, workers do not want to see the services they provide affected, or the paycheques their families rely on disappear.

And last, the process provides stability for workers and employers through the life of the contract. In other words, a deal is a deal.

But this process has been undermined by the Pallister government, which used the heavy hand of legislation to freeze the wages of more than 120,000 public-sector workers in Manitoba, without even coming to the bargaining table to try to negotiate a deal. Bill 28, the so-called Public Services Sustainability Act, tramples on the collective bargaining rights of the workers who provide public services to all Manitobans.

These workers keep our province moving, providing health care to those who are sick and injured, educating our young people, taking care of the water and forests that we all enjoy, making sure our roadways are safe and doing hundreds of other jobs we all rely on every day.

The act fundamentally undermines their right to a fair collective-bargaining process. And in that way, it’s unfair and it’s unconstitutional.

To be clear, this right doesn’t guarantee workers any particular outcome from collective bargaining, but it does guarantee the right to engage in a meaningful process of collective bargaining. It requires employers and unions to come to the bargaining table and try, in good faith, to negotiate a collective agreement.

Manitoba’s public-sector unions were willing to come to the table with practical ideas to help reduce the deficit, but the Pallister government was never serious about consulting. They opted to legislate rather than negotiate, so public-sector unions had no choice but to challenge their unconstitutional law in court.

We all have a part to play in working toward a balanced budget. In campaigning during the last provincial election, Brian Pallister promised to protect front-line services and respect the workers who deliver them. But balancing the budget should not come at the expense of the public services that Manitoba families count on, or the dedicated Manitobans who provide them.

As unions have always done, we will continue to stand up for workers, and for fair treatment and fair compensation for the hard work that they do. And we will be there to push back against the Pallister government’s plans to cut services and hurt working families in our province.

– Kevin Rebeck is the president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.