News / Winnipeg

Manitoba to try reopening public sector contracts, reduce salaries: premier

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government wants to reopen existing collective agreements with public sector workers in order to hold the line on wages and reduce the provincial deficit, Premier Brian Pallister confirmed Monday.

Pallister had earlier talked about a "pause" in wage growth in new collective agreements as a way to control government spending. He went further Monday when he confirmed that he is also eyeing a potential rollback of salary increases already negotiated and included in collective agreements.

"What we're doing is, we're saying, 'Well these things are on the table, let's have a listen to what people have to say,'" Pallister told reporters.

"Something's got to give. I mean, you can't keep running $900-million deficits and think you're doing anything but deferring a tax obligation to your kids and yourself when you're older."

The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union immediately dismissed the idea.

"Reopening contracts or imposing settlements wouldn't be fair, and both would likely be unconstitutional," union president Michelle Gawronsky said in a written statement.

The MGEU recently negotiated a collective agreement for thousands of civil servants that runs until 2019 and contains wage hikes of one or two per cent each year. Teachers across the province have similar increases in collective agreements that run until the middle of 2018.

Pallister said he was elected to end a string of deficits started by the NDP in 2010, and would like to see union leaders agree to work with him.

"I think we have to chart a new course and I'm looking for help in doing that. And I expect that union leaders, on behalf of their members, will want to be part of that."

Pallister's Progressive Conservative government announced last week that it is planning legislation to control public-sector wage growth. But Pallister has also stressed a desire to consult and work with union leaders before the legislation comes forward in the spring.

David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, has said Pallister's dual messaging is likely aimed at ensuring any wage crackdown can survive a court challenge.

Camfield pointed to a 2007 ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that overturned actions by the British Columbia government to reopen collective agreements in the health-care system.

The court ruled governments have the right to legislate changes, but must consult with union leaders before taking action. The British Columbia government did not do proper consultation, the court ruled.

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