By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — A Manitoba judge struck down the provincial government’s attempt to freeze the wages of more than 110,000 public sector workers Thursday, calling the bill enacting the wage freeze unduly harsh and a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I have concluded that the (bill) operates as a draconian measure that has inhibited and dramatically reduced the unions’ bargaining power and violates (charter) associational rights”, Queen’s Bench Justice Joan McKelvey wrote.
“The (bill) has made it impossible for the plaintiffs to achieve their collective goals and limits the right to freedom of association.”
The Progressive Conservative government introduced the Public Services Sustainability Act in 2017, one year after being elected on a promise to control spending. The bill included a two-year wage freeze for each new collective agreement, followed by pay increases of 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.
Although the bill was passed by the legislature, it was never proclaimed into law and the government held out the possibility of amending it.
The public-sector unions that took the government to court said the bill was already affecting contract talks.
“The (bill), despite the fact that it has not been proclaimed, is effectively in force in the province of Manitoba.”
She ruled that key provisions of the bill, including the wage limits, “are invalid and of no force and effect”.
The Manitoba Federation of Labour welcomed the ruling and said it was time for the government to get back to the bargaining table. Some workers have gone without collective agreements for more than three years.
“We can now get to the table without this shadow looming over the ability to have frank and free and fair discussions,” federation president Kevin Rebeck said.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the government was reviewing the decision and might appeal. He also said it could put additional pressure on government coffers.
“So, as before, regular labour relations and collective bargaining will continue,” reads a statement from Fielding’s office.
“Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented negative economic impacts it has caused, these create even deeper fiscal challenges for the government of Manitoba.”