Manitoba finance minister and labour leaders meet as province seeks savings

Manitoba government, labour groups meet

WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s public-sector union leaders may get some details about the Progressive Conservative government’s cost-cutting plans Thursday during a meeting with Finance Minister Cameron Friesen.

Premier Brian Pallister has left the door open to freezing wages, reopening collective agreements and other measures in recent weeks, and the head of Manitoba’s largest union is hoping a one-hour meeting Thursday will clear the air.

“I’m really happy that we are having a face-to-face meeting … instead of hearing it through the media,” Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, said Wednesday.

“If we’re truly going to work together, it’s going to have to be done cooperatively.”

Pallister, who inherited a $846-million deficit when his Tories swept the NDP from power last April, has said public-sector wages must be part of his fiscal belt-tightening plan because they represent more than two-thirds of the provincial budget.

Pallister called last month for a sharp reduction in the number of bargaining units across the province. He has also refused to rule out wage freezes, similar to one recently negotiated for the faculty at the University of Manitoba.

Pallister has also left the door open to renegotiating existing contracts, and has promised legislation in the spring to control public-sector costs.

Gawronsky, who represents 40,000 workers, said changing existing contracts is a non-starter.

“The contract that we have signed with government is a legal and binding contract. We will uphold our side of the bargain … and I would expect the government to do the same.”

Friesen said in a written statement that the government wants to work with labour leaders and others to find “realistic solutions in tackling the deficit,” but would not put forward specifics in advance of the meeting.

“We cannot ignore the significant fiscal challenges facing our province as we do the necessary work to repair and improve the services Manitoba families depend on. We will not prejudge the outcome or recommendations brought forward during (the) meeting with Manitoba’s union leaders.”

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press