Manitoba's unions are ready to fight proposed labour legislation

Image: Flickr/aa440

Manitoba's labour leaders are pushing back against new legislation they say drastically reduces workers' rights and puts Manitobans' health care at risk.

Earlier this month, the provincial government passed Bill 28 and Bill 29. Bill 28, The Public Services Sustainability Act, creates a rolling four-year period of wage freezes or minimal wage increases. Bill 29, The Health Sector Bargaining Review Act, dramatically decreases the number of unions in the health-care sector, and could possibly pit unions against each other.

Both bills were introduced on March 20 and received royal assent on June 2. Neither has come into effect.

Union leaders have strongly criticized the bills, saying the government did not listen to labour's concerns.

Bill 28 "strips away any meaningful process of negotiation," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL). He called it unconstitutional, and said the province's unions are prepared to take the government to court because of it.

The law limits public service employees' wage increases for a rolling consecutive four-year period. Wages cannot increase for the first two years. In the third year, wages can increase by .75 per cent. They can be raised by one per cent in the fourth year.

People are still eligible for increases based on performance or promotions during this time.

This law would apply to university employees. It does not apply to judges.

For unionized employees, it takes effect when the collective bargaining agreement that was in place on March 20 expires. If a contract expires in 2019, for example, the four-year period would begin then. If workers didn't have a contract on March 20, the period starts the day after their latest contract expired. If a collective agreement expired on March 31, 2016 for example, this law would become effective retroactively on April 1, 2016.

The four-year period begins on March 20, 2017 for non-unionized employers.

Applying the law retroactively to a specific date is "incredibly bizarre," said Rebeck.

The government claims both these bills are necessary to save money.

In a press release issued when Bill 28 and Bill 29 were introduced, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said the government had been "engaged for many weeks in a dialogue with union leadership" and was "committed to meaningful consultation with organized labour." Friesen further described the law as a good compromise made after listening to all views.

Union leaders disagree. Rebeck said the MFL suggested many ways the government could make money, including limiting expenditures, taxing those with higher incomes, or taking into account earnings from marijuana or carbon taxes.

The government did not respond to any of these proposals, and instead seemed focused on collective bargaining, said Rebeck.

He said he felt that the government only met with unions so they could "check off a box" to say they'd done so.

Unions have gotten more information from media releases than from the government itself, said Marianne Hladun regional executive vice president for the prairie region of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

She's particularly concerned about how the government has ignored unions' response to Bill 29.

This bill would drastically reduce health-care unions in the province. In healthcare, there are more than 180 collective bargaining agreements. It wants to reduce that to fewer than 50. The new legislation would give each of Manitoba's five regional health authorities and each province-wide health agency seven bargaining agreements, one for each type of employee. For example, all nurses would be covered by one agreement; all physicians by another. This would apply to workers at different facilities in the same region.

The contract would be negotiated by the union with the most members. Employees will vote by secret ballots for the union they want to join.

The law creates a commissioner to make decisions about contracts. The commissioner's decisions have the same authority as those made by the Labour Board. The commissioner's decisions cannot be appealed. They can be challenged in court.

This system pits unions against each other. This could distract workers, said Hladun.

Workers chose their unions for a reason, said Hladun. "We don't believe the government, by way of legislation, has the right to tell union members that they must change their union."

Run-off votes will distract workers from their jobs.

"If our members are fighting over unions to see who will be the representative, they're not focusing on the patients," said Hladun.

The legislation creates an employers' organization for each health region. Unions would like to see something similar to represent employees.

"No union is interested at growing its membership at the expense of another union," said Rebeck. Unions have signed a solidarity agreement.

Labour leaders are disappointed the law passed before this council was formed.

The government said in a press release that more changes could be made after further discussions with unions.

rabble.ca contacted the government of Manitoba for further details about their consultation with unions and to get their reaction to the idea of employees' council. In an emailed response, the government said it was unable to comment on the situation because of a current by-election.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Image: Flickr/aa440

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