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Wab Kinew’s NDP should embrace labour issues as critical to the future of Manitoba

New Democrats have traditionally supported workers and overseen some of the highest union density rates in the country

Canadian PoliticsLabour

Manitoba Premier-designate Wab Kinew on the campaign trail, September 15, 2023. Photo from X.

The election of Wab Kinew to lead a new NDP government in Manitoba represents the ninth election victory for the party since 1969. As one of two governing options in Manitoba, the NDP has had a profound impact upon the province in the over 30 years it has held power.

The introduction of Medicare, the creation of Manitoba Public Insurance and the expansion of sustainable public power through Manitoba Hydro, are but three of the NDP’s key accomplishments.

In the area of worker rights, the NDP has also accomplished much in recent Manitoba history. The Schreyer government modernized the Labour Relations Act and created conditions for the labour movement to grow throughout the 1970s.

The Howard Pawley government in the 1980s introduced First Contract legislation, enabling unions to gain a foothold and avoid protracted first contract strikes. Pawley also introduced comprehensive pay equity legislation in the public sector, a politically courageous decision in the throngs of a recession. His government also introduced what was then Canada’s most advanced workplace health and safety legislation.

The Gary Doer and Greg Selinger administrations of the 1999–2016 period restored the decimation of labour legislation that occurred under the 11 years of Tory rule under Gary Filmon. They also supported the employment of unionized trades workers during major public infrastructure initiatives such as the Red River floodway expansion and hydro development projects.

Public sector pensions were preserved under both Doer and Selinger. The strong financial position of the province in the first decade of the 2000s was used to re-invest in the provincial superannuation plan. As finance minister, Selinger fixed the United Way Pension Plan, a multi-employer scheme, thereby sustaining the present and future pensions of workers in the broader social services and not-for-profit sectors.

The NDP’s record on labour issues was never perfect, and there were occasional tensions on the public sector bargaining front. But the NDP in power supported workers and Manitoba enjoyed amongst the country’s highest union density rates.

Manitoba’s workforce today, after seven years of Conservative austerity, has seen real wages decline and new union certifications plummet as organizing was made more difficult. These facts, coupled with the growth of the gig economy and the introduction of artificial intelligence and its impact upon jobs, contribute to the pent-up demand for action by government on the part of workers.

The recent NDP victory resulted from a range of critical issues, not to mention widespread public opposition to Conservative policies. The victory in part arose out of a determined effort by organized labour, led by the Manitoba Federation of Labour, to defeat the PC assault on public sector bargaining rights.

Trade union activists, and indeed all workers, will be looking to the new government to support them as they face a range of critical workplace issues. These include:

  • Pent-up bargaining demands as real wages have eroded over the past dozen years since the financial crisis of 2008.
  • Huge labour force shortages in key sectors including health care, education and the construction trades, not to mention the service sector.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the fact that many essential workers are poorly paid, and lack decent employee benefits, including paid sick leave.
  • Archaic labour laws, which make workers rights to organize into the trade unions of their choice more difficult.
  • A growing number of gig workers who do not enjoy even baseline Employment Standards Act protections.
  • The growing spectre of largely unregulated artificial intelligence, which has the potential to eliminate jobs and to compromise the quality of remaining jobs, including worker privacy rights.

The new Manitoba government does not, in and of itself, control each of the above policy issues. Some require federal action. On this front, we should urge the government to prioritize bilateral relations with other provinces, and to move federal-provincial relations beyond an annual plea by provinces for more cash transfers from Ottawa.

Throughout our history, when it comes to key components of Canada’s social safety net, it was strong leadership at the provincial level that led to key national action on Medicare and the establishment of the Canada Pension Plan, to name but two key accomplishments of the 1960s.

The intergovernmental affairs file rests largely in the premier’s office and one hopes that the needed leadership that Kinew will provide Canada includes worker protections alongside critical issues such as reconciliation and national unity.

In terms of specifics, the Kinew government should act quickly to remedy several obvious shortfalls in Manitoba labour laws, including:

  • The Labour Relations Act (LRA) should be amended to include a return of automatic certification when a majority of workers sign cards indicating their desire to join the trade union of their choice.
  • The LRA should be amended to include a ban on the use of replacement workers in all instances where workers opt to engage in legal strike action or where they are locked-out by their employer.
  • Manitoba labour legislation should be amended to expand the practice of sectoral bargaining options for both unionized and non-union employees. The goal of legislation must be to expand worker power to establish living wages, decent benefits and establish standards under which no employer can be exempt.
  • The Construction Industry Wages Act should be strengthened to include enhanced enforcement measures, the return to Project Labour Agreements (PLAs), and the restoration of healthy apprentice-to-journeyperson ratios.
  • Manitoba’s Employment Standards Act should be amended to include the right for all workers to 10 paid sick days each year.
  • The minimum wage level should be increased to become a living wage as calculated by CCPA-Manitoba. The indexing formula for automatic increases should be reviewed and revised to ensure that the established living wage does not decline in value.
  • Manitoba’s Workers Compensation Act should be reviewed with a view to increasing protections for workers suffering psychological injury. In addition, the act should be amended to expand its deemed coverage provisions to workers in industries with established records of unsafe exposure to lethal products.
  • Pass legislation in response to requests from the Canadian Football League Players Association (CFLPA) to extend WCB coverage to professional football players in Manitoba.
  • Gig workers should be covered under the Employment Standards Act. Manitoba should adopt the US Department of Labor’s six-level test for determining whether a worker is an employee or a contractor.
  • Take the lead and meet with organized labour and other stakeholders to assess the impact of artificial intelligence on all aspects of work, including working conditions and worker privacy rights. Legislative protections for workers should be the focus of this comprehensive review.
  • Introduce pay equity legislation in both the private and public sectors to ensure that all gender-based pay discrimination is eliminated.
  • Legislate the establishment of September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as a paid public holiday for all workers.

There will no doubt be numerous demands placed upon the newly elected NDP government in Manitoba. Not all these priorities can be accomplished at once, or even in the first term of the government.

Given the historical trend in Manitoba of two-term governments, Kinew likely has eight years, and perhaps more, to achieve positive change for all citizens. Health care, education, poverty, climate change, and reconciliation will all be critical and dominant issues for the government to tackle.

Worker and workplace issues abound in Manitoba and indeed throughout the world. The public opposes the widening inequality that is so pervasive these days. Across all income levels and all strata of society, people oppose corporate greed and indifference towards workers.

The opposition to poor treatment of workers comes from some surprising quarters. For example, Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, wrote in 2021:

In the gig economy, there is a third class of workers that is neither self-employed nor an employee, more of a ‘dependent contractor.’ The responsibilities of employers/platform providers for these types of workers need to be clearly defined. These workers should enjoy comparable protections in terms of their rights and safety nets.

Most Manitoba families have firsthand experience with the negative effects of declining real wages alongside rising housing, rental, and food costs. Today’s baby boomers are the first generation of parents whose children face the real prospect of not achieving the living standards that their parents enjoyed. According to Minouche Shafik:

Generation X (those born 1966–1980) and millennials (born 1981–2000) have face a world of more flexible and precarious work, rising house prices and a period of fiscal austerity after the 2008 financial crisis that reduced social spending in many countries… In advanced economies, the risks of poverty are shifting from the old to the young.

The Manitoba government can expect opposition to each move it makes to enhance worker rights. They should not be dissuaded by these voices of doom. They should embrace labour issues as critical to the future of our province and our country. In so doing, New Democrats will earn support from the workers who put them into office, as well as the wider population who understand that rising inequality is not the way forward and who are looking for effective solutions to these and other critical issues.

Paul Moist is a retired labour leader. He served locally as president of the Winnipeg Labour Council and for two decades as an executive member of the Manitoba Federation of Labour. Between 2003 and 2015 he served as national president of CUPE, Canada’s largest trade union.


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