MFL’s story begins in April of 2016, when the Pallister Government came to power. In their first budget, the new Progressive Conservative cabinet made some reference to needing to “reduce costs” in order to “sustain the services Manitobans need.” It’s a little vague, but immediately raises the question – what costs are you planning to reduce guys? Rumours abound in the media and elsewhere that they are going save money by putting limits on wages and benefits of public sector employees.
So, when someone in the government calls Kevin Rebeck in December of 2016, he’s not all that surprised. There’s a problem with the Province’s finances and could the government meet with the MFL and a few other labour leaders. “Shouldn’t there be more of them at the table?” Rebeck asks. Naw, the government wants to keep the group to “a manageable size.”
A preliminary meeting takes place on January 5, 2017. The Minister of Finance (Cameron Friesen at the time), gives a presentation. Minister Friesen says that there has to be a check on government spending, and that the Ministry of Finance wants to implement an 8-year plan to eliminate the deficit and return to balanced budgets.
There is nothing in the presentation about meeting these goals through wage freeze legislation, and although legislation is mentioned, it is described as “just one of the options.” Rebeck wanted to know whether legislation was already planned and being drafted, and the government representatives said (or implied) that no, it was not. Rebeck tells the court that he took them at their word.
Labour thought that they were about to begin a collaborative process of joint problem-solving, with consultation and dialog about the fiscal issues, and input from the unions about finding creative and mutually beneficial ways to address the them. So, they agreed to participate in a “Fiscal Working Group” made up of about 10 unions plus the MFL. They worked primarily with Gerry Irving, Secretary of the Public Sector Compensation Committee of the Provincial Treasury Board, and Rick Stevenson, the Assistant Deputy Minister for Labour Relations. (Quite a couple of Orwellian mouthfuls, those two.)
In preparation for the Fiscal Working Group meetings, Rebeck starts asking for further clarification. The union members need to know what, exactly, the problems are that they are supposed to be solving. Kevin is especially concerned about the potential for draft legislation because there are constant murmurs about legislation being already in the works. But every time Rebeck asks, Irving dodges the question, or simply ignores it.
Just prior to the first official meeting of the FWG on February 10, 2017, Irving sends an email that seems to suggest that the government wants to “change the focus” of the group from general problem-solving to considering ways to accomplish these goals through legislation. This is a little upsetting to the unions, and Rebeck starts the February 10 meeting by saying how taken aback he was by this sudden shift. Apparently, Irving quickly backtracks, and the discussions resume to the original framework – consultation and dialogue on many options, with legislation as just one possibility.
At this February 10 meeting, the MFL makes its own presentation, suggesting ways to “address Manitoba’s fiscal imbalance.” It has been a little hard for the MFL to come up with comprehensive ideas because Irving hasn’t given the Fiscal Working Group very much information about the Government’s finances or what the challenges are. Rebeck has tried, and would continue to keep trying, but for whatever reason, he cannot get any details.
The second meeting on February 17, 2017 is more of the same. Is there draft legislation? No, no, no, legislation is just one option, not the only option, and we should keep talking. Well, can we get more financial information and how about some feedback on our MFL presentation? Oh, yeah, your ideas will be going up through the finance department, to Cabinet, and to the SEC, and then we’ll get back to you.
In the end, only one analyst in finance, Giselle Martel, looked at the MFL presentation, and her comments were directed to Michael Richards, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Deputy Minister of Crown Services. (That’s the biggest Orwellian mouthful I’ve ever seen, but it makes sense since, according to the government’s organizational charts, Richards is basically the Premier’s right-hand man.)
Rebeck gave a great clarification here about why the Working Group was asking for the financial information:
“The ultimate goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to have wage freeze legislation,” Rebeck says. “The goal is to balance the budget, … at least that’s how the government was framing it. In that case the legislation is just a mechanism. So let’s focus on the goal, and give us more information about it, so that we can come up with meaningful suggestions about legislation and other mechanisms on how to achieve it.”
As Rebeck points out, the union leaders assumed that joint problem-solving was what the Fiscal Working Group was all about, and that the only point of having it was so that the unions could suggest ways to save money to help the government reach its financial goals.
Even though they couldn’t get more information, the unions were still diligently working on ideas. Sandi Mowat, then President of the Manitoba Nurses Union, made a thoroughly researched presentation on how to achieve substantial savings through better management of overtime. It received rave reviews from the government side – “this is amazing, it is exactly what we need …” – and then disappeared into the ether and was never dealt with again.
Things are not going well, and by the time they get to the third meeting on February 24, 2017, it is starting to get ugly. Kevin again asks for details of the draft legislation that seems to be out there, as well as yet another request for more information. There is no answer. It is merely more of the same.