WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s union leaders have failed to convince Finance Minister Cameron Friesen to back off a planned law aimed at controlling public-sector wages.
Union leaders representing civil servants, teachers, health-care workers and others met Thursday with Friesen and his staff for one hour in a legislature dining room.
The meeting ended with Friesen still committed to controlling growth in public-sector wages, and unions still wondering whether that would translate into wage freezes, the reopening of collective agreements or other measures.
“They did talk about exploring legislation that might impact bargaining, but no specifics on a clear plan of what that would be,” Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, told reporters after the meeting.
“We think that the collective bargaining process is where we should deal with these kinds of matters and that legislation is a heavy-handed approach to take.”
Rebeck said the union leaders also asked specifically whether public-sector salaries will be frozen.
“We didn’t get a firm answer on that. They told us that things are open to being discussed at the table and they didn’t want to prejudge the outcome of that.”
Friesen said he wants to develop solutions co-operatively with labour leaders. The two sides have agreed to meet again, but Friesen said the time to act is looming with a provincial budget set for the spring.
“Today we talked more in terms of broad aspirations — where we need to go, what the challenge is in front of us … and how we get there.”
Friesen and his Progressive Conservative colleagues have repeatedly signalled plans to control labour costs since winning the provincial election last April.
Premier Brian Pallister has said he wants to see fewer collective bargaining units. He has also left the door open to wage freezes and reopening collective agreements already in force.
The legislation Friesen is planning for the spring would require any contract negotiations to take into account the province’s “ability to pay,” although he would not say what exactly that means.
“Stay tuned. Obviously, government has done some work on this file … but in no way would I suggest that the work is concluded. Otherwise, it would have been illegitimate to now invite unions and labour into that process,” Friesen said.
One labour expert said in November the government may simply be going through the motions of consulting labour leaders while preparing to act unilaterally.
David Camfield, associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, said Supreme Court rulings have shown that governments can sometimes change collective agreements and impose restrictions if they first make an effort to consult and work co-operatively.
Friesen insisted he is committed to working with the unions.
“We are sincere. We would not invite labour to a table if we had our minds made up on everything.”
Opposition NDP labour critic Tom Lindsey said the government should respect the collective bargaining process and look elsewhere for ways to reduce the deficit.
“I’m sure that there are probably other places that you could look at, if you have to make cuts, or there’s other ways of generating revenue for the government that I don’t believe they’ve really looked at.”