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Brian Pallister Budget 2017Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has launched an all-out attack on workers and youth with the introduction of eight austerity bills and spending cuts in their 2017-2018 budget. PC Leader Brian Pallister ran on a campaign to look inwards to save on costs by cutting so-called unnecessary management in government. However, the focus of Pallister’s cuts has been rank-and-file workers such as Manitoba Hydro employees.

A shift from piecemeal austerity to a full-frontal attack started when the PCs announced 900 job cuts at Manitoba Hydro earlier this year, representing almost 15% of the workforce. Pallister fired the old NDP-appointed board and enlisted a new board that is the most corporate in its history. Every member of the board is the president, executive or CEO of a corporation. The new board is using their expertise as corporate bosses to push for increased hydro rates and attacks on workers. Manitobans will potentially see a double-digit rate increase as early as next year. The PCs also recently revoked the Affordable Utility Rate Accountability Act in their 2017-2018 budget, which required a review of the hydro rates by an independent accounting firm and also mandated that Manitoba offer a lower hydro rate in comparison to other provinces. Without the Accountability Act, the management and review of Hydro is left in the hands of the same people whose policies have been attacking workers and the majority of Manitobans.

One of the most damning bills tabled on April 17th is the so-called “Public Sector Sustainability Act”, which aims to freeze public sector wages for the next four years. Despite the name, the Act is anything but sustainable for public sector workers struggling to pay mortgages or send their kids to college. At least 120,000 public-sector workers will have their quality of life steadily decrease as their wages lag behind the rate of inflation, not to mention increased hydro rates! The Act will come into play once contracts end and will prevent any wage increases for the next two years, followed by a 0.75% cap on salary increases in the third year and 1% in the fourth. The PCs justify the cuts by stating that too much of the provincial budget goes to wages. However, real wages of unionized workers in the province have been stagnant over the last few years. While Pallister complains that "the bargaining table wasn't necessary, it was treated as the buffet table for a long time," the rank and file of major unions, such as at Manitoba Hydro and Unifor, have seen zero wage increases for their past two collective agreements. At the same time, Pallister and the PC team took a 20% salary increase last year.

While wage cuts are atrocious, the greatest threat of the Public Sector Sustainability Act is its violation of collective bargaining rights, which are supposed to be guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That the Pallister government is resorting to illegal means to attack the working class shows the desperation of the Manitoban ruling class to maintain their profits at the expense of working class Manitobans. It also shows the need for an equally bold opposition to the cuts and attacks. Though the major unions have come out against the act as unconstitutional, they haven’t taken any steps beyond criticism to actually fight back. The Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) is the largest union in Manitoba, and while the MFL has criticized the government for refusing to work with labor leadership, their solution is telling Pallister and the PCs that they “should come to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair deal for the public sector workers.”

Non-unionized workers are also taking a hit as the PC government has cancelled the usual increase in the minimum wage to keep track with annual inflation. The MFL explained that without this increase, minimum-wage workers would be $400 poorer per year. About 9% of Manitoba’s workforce earns minimum wage, and 30% of workers on a salary make less than $15 per hour. Women and young workers make up the vast majority of minimum-wage workers in Manitoba. Every year that the minimum wage remains stagnant represents another cut workers and youth take as their wages lag behind the rising cost of living.

Youth will similarly face a greater burden of debt because of the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act, which was also pushed through on the same day as the Public Sector Act. The Education Act removes the tuition cap, allowing tuition to go up by almost 8%, including inflation. Adding salt to the wound, the PCs went ahead and also cancelled the Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate and Advance Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate program. Inside and outside of school, youth are facing unlivable conditions. The government is the largest employer in Manitoba and their attack on workers leaves a gloomy future for youth in their search for a decent job once they graduate. The quality of education is also on a downward spiral as the Education Ministry is set for cutbacks based on the 2017-2018 budget.

While claiming that austerity is the only solution to save Manitoba from further debt, the PCs are also opening up the doors to privatization of key public services such as healthcare. At the moment, there are 22 provincially owned aircraft and water bombers that are used as air ambulances for transporting people from remote communities and inter-hospital transportation among other needs. The PCs are considering laying off the 99 staff in charge of running the aircraft and replacing the publically-owned service with a private service. They are also mandating massive cuts in healthcare, including the closure of after-hours QuickCare Clinics. They have also hinted at replacing the fired unionized workers with private contractors. While the details of their plan have yet to be revealed, these are the same people who laid off 800 workers and sold the Port of Churchill, a vital industry in northern Manitoba, so we can only expect them to continue to follow the dictates of the bottom line.

During the election in 2015, Progressive Conservatives ran on a campaign to balance the budget and offered practically nothing but vague promises to increase infrastructure and reduce healthcare waiting lines. The only headlines they made were about Pallister spending 20% of his time as a Member of the Legislative Assembly at his private property in Costa Rica.

So, how did such a lackluster candidate get the vote in Manitoba? The answer lies in the absence of any real opposition. The NDP ruled Manitoba for almost 17 years under the leadership of Greg Selinger. The biggest highlight of Selinger’s rule might be that he earned himself the title of Canada’s least popular premier. After increasing the Personal Sales Tax, leaving corporate taxes untouched and expelling NDP MLAs who spoke out against the austerity that Selinger was approving, the NDP walked into the 2015 election on a very weak footing. It came as no surprise then that after 17 years of cuts, scandal, and no changes to the status quo, Pallister and the PCs picked up the vote that the NDP dropped. Even then, the election of the PCs is less a win for the party and more so a display of complete discontent with the options on the ballot. The majority of Manitobans expressed distrust in both parties and abstained from voting. Out of those that did vote, 30% chose “none of the above” in a pre-election poll.

Almost right after winning, Pallister made his anti-union views quite clear as he said to union leaders, “You are no longer running the government.” His one campaign promise that separated him from the bankrupt NDP was to get rid of the provincial sales tax. The PCs stated in their 2017-2018 budget that they are still set to make this happen, but on the basis of borrowing money. The sales tax was a major issue during the elections, and the PCs understand that in order to remain in power, they have to throw some crumbs to working class Manitobans. Manitoba Nurses Protest CutsHowever, the potential elimination of the tax will not be enough to suppress the anger in society at the growing burden of austerity.

Over six hundred nurses and members of various unions in Winnipeg are currently protesting the cuts to healthcare. Half the emergency centers in Winnipeg have been closed and hospitals have been told that they must cut their cost by $83 million this year. Concretely this means at least 15% of the workforce will be laid off. This is only the beginning of the cuts; the PCs are in the process of looking over a review of the healthcare system put together by KPMG, the same accounting firm which advised the Ontario Liberals to privatize its hydro. Now is the time for union leaders to take inspiration from the nurses, organize their membership, and fight back against the PC attacks. The unions consist of hundreds of thousands of members who can easily link up to the youth, the unemployed, and the majority of Manitobans. The PCs cannot provide a solution for debt or meet social needs. As long as they stick to the logic of capitalism, they must continue to attack the working class to extract their profits. United action of all unions against the layoffs, cuts, and the Public Sector Sustainability Act is a force that Pallister and his corporate friends cannot ignore. If they continue with the attacks and austerity, labour must take the steps to organise a one-day general strike. As the PCs try to attack and divide workers, a general strike will not only show Pallister where the real power rests in society, it will also demonstrate to workers that they are not alone in their struggle. United, they can not only prevent the PC attacks, but also work together to form a Manitoba geared towards social need rather than profit.