Manitoba Crown lawyers win pay bumps in arbitration, after tense negotiations with province

An arbitrator has awarded Manitoba’s Crown attorneys pay raises and other increases following a tense round of failed collective bargaining with the government — one that saw the two sides unable to settle even a single issue at the bargaining table for the first time in history. 

In arbitrating a three-year contract between the province and the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys (MACA), arbitrator Arne Peltz awarded the Crown lawyers pay raises of 1.4 per cent, 0.5 per cent and 1.2 per cent for the years 2019 through 2021 respectively.

The amounts awarded are less than the annual two per cent wage increases MACA sought. 

Peltz also increased the salaries of the most junior Crowns by two per cent to keep their incomes in line with other comparable jurisdictions in Canada but declined to give the same bump to more senior lawyers.

Crown lawyers working in remote parts of the province will see a twice yearly retention payout increase to $6,000 from $3,000. 

Crown attorney annual salaries range from $78,849 – $95,795 for junior lawyers to a maximum of $163,258 for the most advanced, according to a pay plan posted as part of an order-in-council authorizing ministerial sign-off on the new contract. 

Peltz denied the association a no-layoff provision for the life of the agreement and also nixed a one-time COVID-19-related payout to its 230 members worth more than $800,000. 

The association argued the bonus was meant to recognize workload increases and other challenges they’ve faced due to the pandemic.

“Without question, Crown attorneys have faced challenges and extra workload in responding to the pandemic,” Peltz wrote in his recently released decision. “However there was no suggestion of extra risk or hazard, as with front-line workers,” he said. 

‘Economic situation is serious but not desperate’: arbitrator

Bargaining between the parties fell apart in December 2019 after the province tabled a final offer which hewed to its legislated policy of imposing wage freezes for the first two years of any new public-sector agreement, followed by pay increases of 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.

The Public Services Sustainability Act passed in the legislature in 2017 but was never proclaimed into law. The province is currently appealing a 2020 Court of Queen’s Bench ruling which deemed the law unconstitutional and a “draconian measure” dramatically reducing the bargaining power of unions. 

Arne Peltz has been a collective agreement grievance arbitrator and mediator since 1992. He is also a former vice-chair of the Manitoba Labour Board. (Arbitrators Association of B.C.)

During arbitration, the province stood firm on its position, citing economic damage caused by COVID-19 and resulting economic uncertainty. 

The province warned if the Crowns’ association rejected its Dec. 2, 2019, final offer it would also seek to have the appointed arbitrator award “numerous significant concessions,” which was interpreted by the union as a “bad faith attempt to intimidate members in the exercise of their vote,” Peltz wrote. 

“MACA described the offer as an insult to Crown attorneys,” Peltz said, and also a continuation of what the courts had already ruled was an unconstitutional bargaining process. 

A major friction point in the arbitration was that the government wanted Peltz to consider any potential wage deliberations in light of the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic. 

The association challenged, arguing it was unfair to look at negotiations which started in early 2019 through the lens of what happened after March 2020. While COVID was a relevant factor to consider for 2020, it said, Crowns agreed to take five unpaid days last year to help the government cut workforce spending. 

Peltz suggested his job was to replicate meaningful collective bargaining, and that the “2019 bargaining landscape should be the main basis for replication but not to the exclusion of significant subsequent events.” 

As for the economic impact of COVID-19, Peltz ultimately ruled the situation wasn’t as dire as the province said it was for the 2020-22 timeframe. 

“I conclude that the economic situation is serious but not desperate,” he said. “It is undeniable, as the province argued, that we are currently in a state of emergency but there are reasonable prospects for a return to normal.” 

The new collective agreement expires in March 2022. Peltz denied the government’s request for a two-year contract. 

The arbitrated agreement comes at a time when Manitoba nurses have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action after working without a contract for more than four years.

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson has said requests from the union to go to binding arbitration have been refused by the province.

The province plans to pass a bill this fall making changes to the Labour Relations Amendment Act, eliminating the requirement for binding arbitration after a 60-day dispute between a union and employer. It could result in strikes and lockouts lasting indefinitely.

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