By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Manitoba government workers have won a court battle with the provincial government over having an arbitrator help hammer out a new collective agreement.
A Court of Queen’s Bench justice has ruled the government was wrong to deny the request for arbitration from the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union on behalf of more than 11,000 civil servants.
The last collective agreement expired in March 2019, and the two sides met briefly the following month to start negotiations on a new deal.
The government had already passed a bill mandating a two-year wage freeze for new public-sector collective agreements, but had not proclaimed it into law.
The union said talks quickly went nowhere and asked for an arbitration board, which can impose a settlement, but the government refused and called for talks to continue.
Justice Brenda Keyser has ordered an arbitrator be appointed, and says the government was wrong to deny the request once the union outlined difficulties affecting negotiations.
“I find that the provisions in the (Civil Service Act) mandate the appointment of an arbitration board upon either party making that request and supplying the statement of difficulties,” Keyser wrote in her ruling Thursday.
Keyser also criticized the government’s argument that its wage freeze bill was not necessarily a firm position in the contract talks because it had not yet been proclaimed into law.
“In my view, this position is disingenuous at best,” she wrote.
“The (bill) proposals were the starting point of Manitoba in the negotiation process. And it is Manitoba that is in the position to have the (bill) proclaimed into effect at any time and to make its provisions retroactive, despite any advances made in negotiations up to that point.”
The union told court that it had asked the government whether it would be willing to consider wage increases despite the bill and never got a direct answer. The bill, after two years of wage freezes as each new collective agreement is reached, also limits increases to 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.
The union welcomed the ruling.
“The judicial win today is vindicating for those hard working people who had to watch their own employer fight them in the courts rather than sit down and negotiate fair and square,” union president Michelle Gawronsky said in a statement.
“I can’t tell you how much we welcome the opportunity to have this contract decided by an impartial, third party.”
Finance Minister Scott Fielding said in a statement that the government had just received the ruling and would take time to review it.
“The implications for the collective bargaining process are significant and we will fully weigh our options, including appeal considerations.”