WINNIPEG — A lawyer representing the Manitoba Federation of Labour and 28 public-sector unions argued the Manitoba government’s wage-freeze bill should be declared unconstitutional, as a trial over the legislation began Monday morning in a Winnipeg courtroom.

“The case before you is about the collective bargaining process,” said lawyer Shannon Carson, in an opening statement. 

The case is being heard by Justice Joan McKelvey. 

Court heard the claim was brought forward by the Manitoba Federation of Labour and 28 unions that represent a total of 112,000 public-sector workers including teachers, nurses, health-care workers, social service workers and some Manitoba Hydro staff.

Carson told McKelvey the plaintiffs aren’t asking the court to guarantee any wage increase, she said it’s about the process.

The Public Services Sustainability Act, or Bill 28, which passed in 2017 but has never been proclaimed into law, reduces union bargaining and affects their ability to bargain in good faith, Carson argued in court. 

The bill calls for a two-year wage freeze for public-sector workers followed by a 0.75 per cent pay increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth year.

Carson told court, evidence will be called that will highlight government interference months before the act was introduced in the 2016 collective bargaining process between the University of Manitoba and University of Manitoba Faculty Association, as well as in collective bargaining between the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, representing workers at Westman Lab and Diagnostic Services Manitoba.

“You are asked to determine whether the government of Manitoba substantially interfered with these two bargaining processes in the fall of 2016 months before the PSSA was even enacted,” Carson told court. 

A lawyer for the Manitoba government, Heather Leonoff, told court in an opening statement she plans to call evidence to justify the act. 

”Everything comes down to is the law constitutional or not,” Leonoff told court. 

Leonoff noted the act has not become law and ”it is having no legal effect on anyone.”

She told court growing debt and a significant provincial deficit when the current government took power spurred the legislation.

”It was a fiscally prudent option for the government to look at addressing public sector compensation costs,” Leonoff told court.

The trial continues.