Public employees in Manitoba are under attack, but in July, they petitioned the courts to help them strike back.

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Local 2034 members, like those working for Manitoba Hydro at the Wuskwatim Generating Station, have been squeezed by the provincial government. Now they're fighting back.

At issue is a law pushed by Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government, which attempts to impose strict pay freezes that undercut the fundamental principles of collective bargaining. Labour representatives on July 4 filed for an injunction against the law, an aggressive legal maneuver that has little precedent in Canadian history, but one that labour lawyers think has a real chance at stopping the bill’s worst anti-worker provisions.

“The Pallister government has tried to tie our hands,” Winnipeg, Manitoba, Local 2034 Business Manager Mike Velie said, referring to wage mandates prescribed in Bill 28, the legislation designed to cut provincial expenses on the backs of working people. “This bill doesn’t prevent us from engaging in contract negotiations, but it takes away the rights of our 2,800 members to bargain on wages.”

That issue, said Local 2034 Assistant Business Manager Ken Woodley, cuts to the heart of collective bargaining itself. In a May 8 presentation to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, Woodley made a passionate argument against the bill.

“There is little doubt that this bill is intended to directly interfere with the collective bargaining process,” he said. Removing wage negotiations from contract talks, he reasoned, is “like saying, you can keep the car, but we’re going to take the motor out for four years.”

The bill amounts to a drastic solution to balancing provincial budgets, calling for a two-year compensation freeze for all of Manitoba’s 120,000 public employees and maximum increases of 0.75 percent and 1 percent in the third and fourth years of the law, respectively. Additionally, it mandates those strict limits on total compensation in the first two years, meaning that if a pension fund needs a boost, or workers want extra vacation days, that funding has to come in the form of wage cuts or other compensation reductions.

All of Velie’s 2,800 members working for Manitoba Hydro would be affected, as would smaller numbers of IBEW members at Winnipeg Locals 435 and 2085.

“This bill was meant to send a message to labour,” said First District International Representative Brian Murdoch. “The New Democratic Party ran things for 15 years, and things were pretty good for working people, but when the Progressive Conservatives won control in 2016, we knew we were in for a long fight.”

Bill 28, which was introduced in March and passed secretively in the middle of the night on June 2, has yet to be officially proclaimed into law, but Velie likened it to an ax hanging over labor’s head. A similar measure was passed by the Liberal government in Nova Scotia in 2015, promising to reign in imbalanced budgets by attacking the wages of public workers.

“This is just another attack from an extremely anti-union government,” Velie said, likening the measure to Canada’s version of the U.S.’s right-to-work laws. Last year, Pallister’s government eliminated the use of card check in organizing campaigns, and he has made clear that Manitoba will not be entering into any project labour agreements on publicly-funded building projects in the future.

Manitoba Federation of Labour President Kevin Rebeck, whose organization is coordinating the court challenge to Bill 28, said the anti-union measures being undertaken by the government are already being felt in the private sector as well, casting a pall over negotiations all over the province.

"Even before Brian Pallister's final vote to pass this heavy-handed new law, the effects were being felt at the workplace. This comes right on the heels of major layoffs and cuts to healthcare and other services people count on," said Rebeck. "Pallister can use his majority in the legislature to get his way, but we'll be there to push back every step of the way in court."

He warned that the Pallister government is already looking for creative ways to carve pieces out of Crown corporations, including Manitoba Hydro, that could make the new smaller organizations ripe for privatisation at a later date.

“The one silver lining,” Rebeck said, “is that Mantioba’s unions are united in ways we haven’t been in years. Together, we’ll keep fighting this thing until we have a chance to send a message at the ballot box in 2020.”