Union leaders say Pallister pushing ahead with civil service cuts

‘We want to work constructively with the province to find a balanced approach,’ labour group says

Manitoba’s public-sector unions say the Progressive Conservative government is eyeing big cuts to the civil service without allowing labour leaders to provide input on how else to improve the province’s financial straits.

“We want to work constructively with the province to find a balanced approach … without doing irreparable harm to our schools, hospitals and other public services,” says a statement from the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

“But it seems Premier [Brian] Pallister is more focused on cuts to public services and reopening signed contracts than protecting those services and the people who deliver them.”

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Federation of Labour, met with other union leaders and representatives for the province on Friday, but says the meeting didn’t provide the clarity he was looking for.

“Government officials again declined to answer questions about the province’s fiscal outlook and the assumptions underpinning it,” Rebeck told reporters after the meeting.

“By denying basic financial information, the premier and finance minister are preventing public-sector unions from participating in a meaningful consultation.”

​The province has raised the idea of reduced work weeks, predetermined wage settlements, changes to pensions and the reopening of collective agreements for public-sector workers.

On Jan. 5, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen met briefly with union leaders to ask them to participate in what they called a Fiscal Working Group that would explore solutions to balance the province’s budget.

But on Feb. 9, one day before the group’s first meeting, a government official emailed the labour federation, saying the group would no longer consider options to improve the government’s fiscal situation but would focus only on the “narrow legislative intentions” around the service cuts, the federation of labour said in its statement on Friday.

No politicians were present at Friday’s meeting, Rebeck said, and he says the provincial representatives couldn’t clarify whether government would consider non-legislative options to bring in the changes.

“It seems the only thing they are sure of is that they want to impose some sort of legislation,” he said.

‘Inaccurate public grandstanding’

After the meeting, the PC government sent out a written statement blasting union leaders for “inaccurate public grandstanding,” but was tight-lipped on the meeting itself.

“The integrity of this ongoing process requires direct and frank dialogue so neither the Premier nor the Minister of Finance will be drawn into premature speculation about potential outcomes,” the statement said.

“Our government respectfully urges our partners in labour to follow the same course by focusing on the opportunity for actual discussion and cooperation rather than seeking charged and mischaracterized public conflict.”

Rebeck said union leaders were told the government hadn’t ruled out reopening existing collective agreements. If that happens, he said the federation would consider a legal challenge.

“We would do everything we can to stop them from opening existing collective agreements, and that could include legal challenges if we had to,” he said.

Opposition pans proposals

The Opposition NDP also lashed out at the government on Friday for refusing to consider ideas presented by representatives of organized labour.

“The Pallister government promised to protect frontline workers and frontline services but instead cut jobs and services,” said James Allum, NDP finance critic.

“Now Pallister is threatening to bring in legislation to open up contracts and roll back wages. These cuts will only hurt everyday Manitobans while helping those at the top.”

The NDP is calling for a balanced approach to address the province’s fiscal situation, one it says won’t involve harsh cuts to public services.

“The government is ignoring its own stated timeline of trying to return to balance in eight years and is instead imposing an austerity agenda that will hurt Manitoba families and the frontline services they rely on,” Allum said.

Pallister, Friesen not available for comment

A spokeswoman for the province said the premier is on the road and Friesen is also travelling so they won’t comment on the matter.

Instead, she released the following statement, blaming the previous NDP government:

“Our government inherited serious financial challenges and unsustainable expenditure growth. As we address these issues and consider options including legislation, we have reached out to union leadership to secure views and constructive feedback.

“This is occurring through a respectful and ongoing process being co-ordinated through public service officials and union leaders. Government is not going to bypass this direct dialogue through premature public comments about potential outcomes.”