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Mayor wants to change process for bargaining with police and fire unions

Bill Metcalfe
By Bill Metcalfe
July 5th, 2013

Nelson City Council will be heading into negotiations with its firefighters and police officers this year, and the mayor thinks the process is biased in favour of the unions.

John Dooley’s opinion is shared by the B.C. Mayors’ Caucus which is calling on the provincial government to change the way negotiating is done with the two groups.

Police officers and firefighters in B.C. are not allowed to strike. They are governed by the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act which deems them essential services and requires that if a negotiated settlement is not possible, an arbitrator must be brought in. This happened in the most recent settlement with Nelson firefighters in 2008.

Holding out for big city wages?

The Mayors’ Caucus says the two unions in smaller communities use this as a way of holding out for wages comparable to those paid in big cities.

“There is no point in trying to negotiate with them,” Dooley told The Nelson Daily in May. He said the pattern across the country is for the police and fire unions in smaller cities to force negotiations to go to arbitration, on the assumption that the arbitrator will match a recent settlement already established in a larger centre. Dooley says small towns like Nelson can’t afford that.

Collective agreements between the city and the 17-member Nelson Police Association and the 11 members of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 1343 expired in 2012.

The unions think that going for parity with their counterparts across the country is a logical thing to do. It’s their job, they say.

Lorne West, the Vice President of the IAFF for western Canada, disagrees with Dooley that the unions have been forcing arbitrations. “There are 52 cities in B.C. with firefighter union contracts, and in my 40 years there have been less than 20 arbitrations,” he says.

West says the legislation requires the arbitrator to look at a variety of factors including internal consistency within the community and the other employees of the city, not just parity with other bargaining units.

Union says Nelson firefighters the lowest paid in BC

West says the wages of firefighters in Nelson have been declining in relation to the provincial average, and the arbitrated settlement in 2008 did not give them parity with other firefighters in the province. He said Nelson firefighters are the lowest paid in B.C.  “They are only at 94% of what firefighters make in Vancouver and in Cranbrook or Kelowna,” he told The Nelson Daily.

Firefighter increases and wage levels in Nelson

In the last round of negotiations in 2008, bargaining between the city and the IAFF went to arbitration. The result: a 24% increase over four years (6.5% in 2008, 6.5% in 2009, and 5.75 % in 2010 and 2011).

Annual wages, not including benefits, for Nelson firefighters for the year 2011 ranged from a probationary firefighter at $53,592 to the assistant fire chief at $95,700. (The fire chief is not part of the union.) 

Nelson police increases and wage levels

Nelson is one of twelve municipalities in B.C. that has its own police force, funded entirely by local taxes.

Tom Stamatakis of the B.C. Police Association says Dooley’s assertion that arbitrators are picking high numbers from big city settlements is an indication that Dooley “is just not getting the results he wants.”

Stamatakis’ argument is similar to West’s:  that arbitrators consider many factors and that the police union is justified in trying to achieve wage parity across the province.

The last round of negotiations between the city and the police association, which did not go to arbitration, resulted in a 21% increase over five years (4.5% in 2008 and 2009 and 4% in 2010, 2011, and 2012).

Wages, not including benefits, for Nelson police for the year 2012 ranged from a probationary officer at $62,052 per year to a sergeant at $102,467 per year. (The police chief is not part of the union.) The collective agreement is attached at the end of this article.

16% of the city operations budget

The proportion of Nelson’s municipal budget expenditures taken up by “protective services” which mostly comprise police and fire services has increased from around 12% throughout the nineties to about 16% in the past decade, according to the City of Nelson’s annual reports, and this is consistent with a national upward trend.

Change the legislation, but how?

Asked for specifics on how the Mayors’ Caucus wants to change the system, Dooley told The Nelson Daily, “There could be some changes made to the legislation that negotiation could be done in a different manner. That would still have to be ironed out.”

The Mayors’ Caucus website is no more specific than that, simply calling on the provincial government to review the legislation.

A  budget gamble?

In the meantime, with negotiations with both unions coming up, Nelson City Council created this year’s budget this past spring on the assumption that wage settlements with its unions would not exceed the annual rate of inflation, currently running at about 1%.

Asked if budgeting so low for the firefighters and police officers was not a significant gamble on the city’s part, since the settlement could end up in the hands of an arbitrator, Dooley responded, “Based on what has happened with negotiations over the past few years, you are right.”  


Related stories in The Nelson Daily:

All City of Nelson labour contracts up for negotation this year (March 2013)

City and CUPE agree on 5% over three years (June 2013)


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