Reduced work week among possibilities facing Manitoba government workers

Premier proposes pension plan changes, imposed wage settlements in letter

WINNIPEG (CP) — Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has raised the possibility of unpaid days off for public-sector workers as part of its drive to reduce a billion-dollar deficit.

The Tories have already floated the possibility of reopening collective agreements and imposing wage settlements since taking office last April. Premier Brian Pallister has said legislation might be needed, but public-sector unions would be consulted first.

But a letter sent to the Manitoba Federation of Labour this week goes further. It spells out potential measures such as reduced work weeks, reduced pension benefits and extending collective agreements that expire.

“This is by no means an exhaustive list,” reads the letter from Gerry Irving, secretary of the province’s public-sector compensation committee.

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said Friday the government had promised to consult unions on ways to reduce the deficit but now appears determined to legislate cuts to wages and benefits.

He said the fight could end up in court.

“I hope that there can be some reasonable and real discussions. But if workers’ rights are under attack, I don’t see how we don’t challenge that every way we need to,” Rebeck said.

Pallister was travelling Friday and unavailable for comment. His press secretary said the government was open to input from unions.

“Our government inherited serious financial challenges and unsustainable expenditure growth,” Olivia Baldwin-Valainis said in an emailed statement. “As we address these issues and consider options including legislation, we have reached out to union leadership to secure views and constructive feedback.”

Unpaid days off would be a throwback to the so-called Filmon Fridays of the 1990s. Pallister was a backbencher in the Tory government of Gary Filmon in 1993 when public-sector workers were forced to take 10 unpaid days off each year. The measure angered union leaders, but Filmon was re-elected in 1995 with a slightly larger majority.

Also in 1993, Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario attempted to tackle a $12-billion deficit through a “social contract” to recover up to $2 billion by imposing wage concessions on public-sector workers, including 12 unpaid days off a year — that came to be called Rae Days — for anyone making more than $30,000.

The move, while not popular, ended up saving $1.95 billion, but the NDP lost much of its union support and weren’t re-elected in 1995.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has also mused about public sector wage cuts or potential layoffs while his government battles a $1.2 billion deficit. One scenario being considered includes some tax increases, cuts of 4,900 jobs in health care, layoffs in education and reduced support for vulnerable people.

David Camfield, associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, has said Supreme Court rulings have shown that governments can sometimes impose wage and benefit cuts on public-sector workers if they make an effort to consult and work co-operatively.

The Manitoba government and unions have set up a working group to discuss the issue. Finance Minister Cameron Friesen attended the first meeting in January and is expected to table legislation to control public-sector wages in the spring.