The Manitoba Progressive Conservative government has won its appeal of a lower court ruling that found its controversial public-sector wage freeze was unconstitutional.
Wednesday’s decision was a blow for labour groups that represent some 120,000 civil servants.
Following the release of the Manitoba Court of Appeal’s ruling, the Partnership to Defend Public Services said it is disappointed. On its behalf, Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said the group would review the decision.
"While this is not the outcome we were hoping for, we will continue to fight for the rights of workers to collective bargaining," Rebeck said in a news release.
"We will be reviewing the Court of Appeal’s ruling in detail and we expect to come to a decision about our next steps in the near future — including the prospect of an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada."
Brandon University Faculty Association president Gautam Srivastava told The Brandon Sun that he was similarly disappointed with the outcome, especially since all of the union’s legal remedies to fight the province’s wage-freeze law, known as Bill 28, have been exhausted for now.
"That’s not to say that we won’t continue to fight it, but at the same time, going through the proper channels to process this sort of stuff is really the only thing we can do," said Srivastava, whose union represents over 250 university staff.
"Hopefully after this two-year period has passed, things will open up again."
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson remained similarly defiant on Wednesday, stating in a news release that she will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Manitoba Federation of Labour and other unions to represent the interests of all public-sector employees moving forward.
"Our public-sector employees in Manitoba, who have been heroes during this COVID-19 pandemic, deserve no less," she said.
Wednesday’s decision overturns last year’s ruling by Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, which found that Bill 28 was unconstitutional.
In June 2020, trial Judge Joan McKelvey called the government’s 2017 Public Services Sustainability Act "draconian," and ruled it violated the charter right to association and collective bargaining.
Bill 28, which was passed by the government but never proclaimed into law, called for two years of wage freezes followed by pay hikes of no more than 0.75 per cent and one per cent in the third and fourth years of any new public-sector agreement. The bill was roundly criticized by labour groups for robbing them of the right to collective bargaining.
During the Court of Appeal hearing June 3, lawyer Heather Leonoff, acting for the provincial government, said the trial judge failed to properly take into account a precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada collective bargaining case involving the federal government and the RCMP.
"Broad-based, time-limited wage-restraint legislation is constitutional and does not violate ... the charter," Leonoff told a three-member appeal court panel.
On Wednesday, there was one glimmer of hope for labour groups: the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling that the Tories interfered in the collective bargaining process between the University of Manitoba Faculty Association and the University of Manitoba in 2016.
Rebeck said the Tories have "continually thanked Manitoba’s public-sector workers for their service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic," and said if they "truly valued these workers, then it would stop fighting them in court and stay out of their way while they negotiate fair deals with their employers."
— with files from Kyle Darbyson
» The Winnipeg Free Press