Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister called on public-sector union leaders Thursday to agree to reduce the number of bargaining units across the province – the latest in a series of demands Pallister has made of labour since winning the provincial election in April.
In his first state of the province speech, the Progressive Conservative premier said there are 169 bargaining units in the health-care system alone, and a lot of time is spent at the negotiating table.
``Less time on bargaining and more time on caring can mean better services to the front lines of our province,'' Pallister told some 1,200 people at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
``I need ... all hands on deck, I need our union bosses to understand that this is a positive endeavour that will help their own people to deliver services.''
The head of the Manitoba Federation of Labour said he was surprised by the idea and is worried that combining bargaining units could drive down wages and benefits that currently vary.
``That's always the concern, we have long-term care workers who make little more than minimum wage ... and to think that we might go down a road that gives them even less is troublesome,'' said Kevin Rebeck, federation president.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union said Pallister is focused on austerity measures.
``Instead of keeping his election commitment to protect and improve the public services that Manitoba families count on, the premier is creating a distraction in the hope that no one will notice what he's actually doing _ moving to cut and privatize the very services he promised to protect,'' director of negotiations Sheila Gordon said in a written statement.
Pallister has already called on unions to be flexible about their contracts. He has hinted at opening existing collective agreements and indicated that a wage freeze might be on the table for some workers. He has also said legislation will be brought in this spring to control costs in the public sector, including worker salaries.
Pallister spent much of his speech focusing on Manitoba's fiscal woes. The previous NDP government started running deficits in 2010 and twice broke promises to balance the budget. Two credit-rating agencies have downgraded the province's rating in the past 18 months.
The premier reiterated his government's campaign promises to reduce the deficit by cutting management jobs in the civil service, controlling other labour costs and joining a trade agreement with the other western provinces to boost the economy.
``We will fix the finances together, we will repair the services together, we will rebuild the economy together,'' Pallister told the business luncheon.
When pressed for details afterward, Pallister refused to say what he would do if union leaders don't agree to voluntarily cut the number of public-sector bargaining units.
``That's a hypothetical. I don't see that happening, so I won't answer that question.''
Pallister said Saskatchewan and British Columbia have much fewer public-sector bargaining units, and if Manitoba follows suit, taxpayers could benefit.
``Union members would be better off because their dues would be lower, I expect. Manitobans would be better off because their taxes would be lower as well.
``I think it's a win-win for everybody involved.''
- The Canadian Press