By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says she will repeal a bill that imposed a wage freeze on public-sector workers.
The announcement Wednesday was another sign of change under Stefanson, who has promised a more collaborative approach than her predecessor, Brian Pallister, and has already undone some of his initiatives.
“What we’re going to do is allow the collective bargaining process to move forward,” Stefanson said.
“It’s just showing respect for the bargaining process to take place.”
The bill was passed in the legislature in 2017 and imposed a two-year wage freeze for each new public-sector collective agreement, followed by pay increases of 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth. Pallister said fiscal restraint was needed to tackle the deficit.
The bill was never proclaimed into law and the Progressive Conservative government held out the possibility of amending it. Public-sector unions representing more than 110,000 civil servants, health-care workers, teachers and others said negotiators acted as if it were already in effect.
A Court of Queen’s Bench judge struck down the bill as an infringement on collective bargaining rights last year, but the Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned that decision in October.
Despite the court victory, the government said it will formally repeal the bill in the legislature in the coming days. Finance Minister Scott Fielding called the decision “a fresh start.”
Stefanson, who was sworn in as premier Nov. 2, has already reversed some of Pallister’s biggest initiatives.
The day she launched her leadership bid, she promised to halt plans to eliminate elected school boards. More recently, she decided not to pursue further court battles with the federal government over its bringing in a carbon price on the province.
Labour groups welcomed the decision on the wage freeze.
“Public workers who have kept Manitoba’s public services running through the (COVID-19) pandemic should be treated fairly,” Kyle Ross, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, said in a news release.
The labour groups still hope the Supreme Court of Canada will agree to hear their appeal of the recent ruling that said the government had the authority to impose a wage freeze.
“There’s an unanswered question here … and that’s what are the rights of collective bargaining and what are the tools available for governments to interfere in collective bargaining,” said Kevin Rebeck, head of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.
The Opposition New Democrats said they are concerned the government might try to freeze wages in the future without passing a bill, given last month’s court ruling.
“This (wage-freeze) bill has never been law, but that didn’t stop the PCs from freezing workers’ wages and interfering in collective bargaining for years,” finance critic Mark Wasyliw said.