By Steve Lambert
The Supreme Court of Canada will not hear an appeal from unions that consider the Manitoba government’s push for a public-sector wage freeze a violation of collective bargaining rights.
As per its usual practice, the high court gave no reasons for its decision Thursday to refuse to hear the case.
Labour leaders were displeased.
“We’re disappointed the Supreme Court is not going to hear and give a clear decision on some contradictory decisions that have happened already,” said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour. Rebeck was among the labour officials who led the fight against the wage freeze on behalf of more than 110,000 public sector workers including teachers, civil servants and health care staff.
“Are we worried that that sets a precedent down the road? Perhaps.”
The Progressive Conservative government introduced a wage-freeze bill in 2017 as part of its deficit-cutting plan. The bill called for any new public-sector collective agreement to start with a two-year wage freeze, followed by pay increases of 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.
The bill was passed by the legislature but never proclaimed into law, and the government held out the possibility of amending it. The unions said, however, that government negotiators acted as if the wage freeze was firmly in place.
They took the case to the Court of Queen’s Bench, as it was then called, and a judge ruled the bill violated collective bargaining rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The government took the case to the Manitoba Court of Appeal, which overturned the lower court ruling and said the government had the right to set down a time-limited set of wage increases.
Brian Pallister, the premier who put forward the wage freeze, resigned last year and his replacement, Heather Stefanson, repealed the bill and said she would allow collective bargaining to proceed without it.
Labour Minister Reg Helwer said the government was focused on talks.
“We rescinded the (bill) and we have the approach that we’re undertaking now in negotiating with the various unions. And that’s the process that we’re following.”
Labour groups have said they are worried the province may try to impose a wage freeze sometime in the future. For now, they are taking comfort in the fact the Tories backed down on the wage freeze.
“We’ve forced a majority government to repeal a bill that would have held wages back … we got workers real dollars and increases in wages,” Rebeck said.
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