After four years without a contract and being run ragged on the front lines of the pandemic, Manitoba nurses have reached a tentative deal with their employer — a win for the Progressive Conservative government that's been hammered by the opposition for its treatment of the health care workers it called "heroes."

After four years without a contract and being run ragged on the front lines of the pandemic, Manitoba nurses have reached a tentative deal with their employer — a win for the Progressive Conservative government that's been hammered by the opposition for its treatment of the health care workers it called "heroes."

"We know our nurses have made huge sacrifices to keep our system afloat and more than deserve a fair collective agreement," Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said in a release Wednesday. The union, which represents 12,000 nurses, said it won't reveal details of the tentative agreement until its members had been informed.

The seven-year deal provides wide-ranging improvements for all nurses, including retroactive wage increases, a Shared Health spokesman said, expressing gratitude to nurses "for delivering outstanding and continuing care to all Manitobans."

The new Manitoba legislative session kicked off Wednesday with an announcement that Manitoba nurses have reached a tentative deal with the government. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The new Manitoba legislative session kicked off Wednesday with an announcement that Manitoba nurses have reached a tentative deal with the government. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

In the last four years, the PC government "cut health care to the bone," said NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara, one of the opposition politicians who assailed the Tories to do more for overworked and understaffed nurses. The severity of the situation was laid bare during the third wave of the pandemic when ICU patients with COVID-19 had to be transported out of Manitoba because of a lack of critical care nurses.

"All Manitobans will be pleased that MNU and health-care employers have reached a tentative agreement for all of our dedicated nurses," Health Minister Audrey Gordon's press secretary said in an email Wednesday, commending both sides of the bargaining process.

There remain "significant weaknesses" in the health care system but the tentative contract contains "improvements that are a necessary and positive first step in addressing nurses’ serious concerns," the union statement said. The deal was reached after seven weeks of collective bargaining with a mediator and goes to a ratification vote that closes Oct. 14.

Sergeant-at-Arms, Dave Shuttleworth, carries the mace into the Chamber prior to the start of the third session of the 42nd Legislature on Wednesday. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sergeant-at-Arms, Dave Shuttleworth, carries the mace into the Chamber prior to the start of the third session of the 42nd Legislature on Wednesday. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The tentative deal is a win for the Tories as it puts to rest an issue that dogged the party under the leadership of former premier Brian Pallister. News of the agreement came on the same day the Manitoba legislature resumed sitting.

Earlier, five unpopular government bills were, literally, trashed in a ceremony outside the legislature before members of the house formally withdrew them by a unanimous vote.

Parents, teachers, hydro workers and representatives from the labour movement dumped copies of the five pieces of legislation at a press conference organized by the NDP.

"We've proven through our ability to stop parts of this damaging agenda that we can get things done in opposition and we hope to earn your trust to form the next government in Manitoba," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

The bill that provoked the most outrage was Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act. It would've collapsed Manitoba’s 37 English school boards into 15 regional entities reporting to the province, and eliminated elected school trustees. The province promoted it as a way to empower parents, who could volunteer to make decisions on some files that have traditionally been handled by school trustees.

Interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen said he has no expectation the withdrawn bills will be revived. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen said he has no expectation the withdrawn bills will be revived. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Within 10 days we had 4,000 parents from all over Manitoba opposed to that bill," said Luanne Karn, one of the founders of Parents for Public Education in Manitoba that formed last November out of concern about the pandemic response in schools.

"I think this government felt that there would not be a response to what they were doing, but parents and others got together," Karn said before trashing the bill Wednesday. The grassroots group organized news conferences and information campaigns in response to the legislation.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the NDP delayed the bill but Manitobans made sure it died.

"Every year, they hold up bills," he said. "This year was different because tens of thousands of Manitobans had signs saying 'I don't want this'. It was a grassroots victory for Manitobans."

Opposition leader Wab Kinew and the NDP party held up five bills earlier this year that were eventually abandoned by the provincial government. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Opposition leader Wab Kinew and the NDP party held up five bills earlier this year that were eventually abandoned by the provincial government. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The NDP strategy made sure the bills were delayed long enough for Manitobans to organize and speak out before the PC majority could pass them, Kinew said.

"Even though we have defeated these five bills here today, we know the PC party is still going to recycle these ideas," he said.

Pallister may no longer be in charge but the Progressive Conservative government will follow his agenda of cutting services and lowering taxes, said Kinew, before he and the other party leaders in the house thanked the former premier for his service.

New bill introduced

Bill 74, the Budget Implementation and Tax Statutes Amendment Act, doesn't include a cabinet-imposed Dec. 1 Manitoba Hydro rate hike of 2.5 per cent announced in July. Instead, Hydro will apply to the Public Utilities Board for an interim rate application. It eliminates retail sales tax on personal services except for tanning services that use ultraviolet rays. It dissolves the Funeral Board of Manitoba and transfers its role to the Consumer Protection Office. It dissolves the Manitoba Learning Resource Centre and transfers any amounts in its account to general revenue.

Bill 74, the Budget Implementation and Tax Statutes Amendment Act, doesn't include a cabinet-imposed Dec. 1 Manitoba Hydro rate hike of 2.5 per cent announced in July. Instead, Hydro will apply to the Public Utilities Board for an interim rate application. It eliminates retail sales tax on personal services except for tanning services that use ultraviolet rays. It dissolves the Funeral Board of Manitoba and transfers its role to the Consumer Protection Office. It dissolves the Manitoba Learning Resource Centre and transfers any amounts in its account to general revenue.

Bills that were killed

Bill 16 would have allowed an employer to fire an employee for "strike-related misconduct" (even if the employee has not been convicted of a criminal offence) and eliminated the right of striking workers to access binding arbitration after 60 days of strike action or lockout.

Bill 35 would have had the Public Utilities Board approve rates in five-year intervals rather than annually, with the provincial cabinet setting rates in the interim.

Bill 57 would have restricted the rights of protesters by allowing owners or operators of "critical infrastructure" (highways, pipelines, food-processing plants, hospitals and courthouses) to apply for a court order to halt or limit demonstrations.

Bill 40 allowed third party liquor sales.

Bill 64: the Education Modernization Act.

Pallister resigned his Fort Whyte seat Monday and wasn't in the chamber to say farewell or hear his colleagues and adversaries wish him and his family well. Kinew and Lamont both spoke of Pallister's warmth and friendliness when they encountered him outside of the political realm.

"All the best in what lies ahead," Kinew said in the chamber. "To the remaining PCs trying to distance themselves from his legacy, good luck."

Interim Premier Kelvin Goertzen said he has "no expectation" that the withdrawn bills will be revived. Outside the chamber, he didn't admit the bills were a mistake but said withdrawing them showed that his party had listened to Manitobans.

The new leader — to be chosen by the Progressive Conservative party on Oct. 30 — will ultimately set the agenda for the next session, the date of which has yet to be determined, Goertzen said.

One bill that might be revived is Bill 40, which would allow third-party liquor sales, Goertzen said.

"I know there's many in the industry who'd like to see some modernization because some of the rules are archaic."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.