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Firefighters awarded new contract

A stalemate between the city and its professional firefighters has been broken through arbitration. - Bob Hall photo
A stalemate between the city and its professional firefighters has been broken through arbitration.
— image credit: Bob Hall photo

After three years without a contract, an arbitrator has awarded Nelson’s firefighters a 24.5 per cent wage increase, retroactive to the start of 2008.

“We tried negotiating but were unable to come to what we felt was a fair agreement,” says Rick Maida, president of the International Association of Firefighters local, which represents the department’s ten full-time paid members. “At that point we applied for arbitration.”

The three-day hearing in Vancouver in November resulted in a four-year deal that runs through the end of 2011 and sees Nelson firefighters’ wages grow closer to their counterparts in Trail and Cranbrook as well as the Lower Mainland.

The union argued its members should be compensated at the same level as other communities with paid fire departments, while the city responded that wasn’t equitable, since they had always been at about the 94 per cent mark.

The arbitrator’s decision came down the middle, bumping up firefighters’ pay by 18 per cent over the contract — similar to wage increases elsewhere in the province.

They were also granted another 6½ per cent in catch-up pay to bring them back to equivalent historical levels.

“It goes to show how far behind we were when we started this,” Maida says. “The city’s offers were considerably less than what we were awarded.”

As an essential service, firefighters are unable to strike.

“Our only avenue when we can’t come to an agreement in negotiating contracts is arbitration,” Maida says. “We would have preferred not to go there, but had no other choice to get our wages up to a fair number.”

The ruling will have a $210,000 impact on the city budget this year, although city manager Kevin Cormack says $120,000 had been set aside in anticipation of an increase. It remains to be seen how it might affect the overall tax bill.

Both sides are hopeful the arbitrator’s decision will help speed along the next round of bargaining when the contract expires at year’s end.

“The arbitrator looked at this from various perspectives and gave guidance to where he felt our wages should be in relationship with our police and other professional firefighters in the province,” Cormack says.

“I suspect those will be used as the guideposts and should allow us to get to a collective agreement sooner than later. All that was unknown going into arbitration. The clarity is definitely there for both parties.”

However, complicating matters will be other provincial settlements in the interim.

Cormack says sometimes in bargaining the sides are comfortable leading the way and settling, but other times they wait to see what happens elsewhere first.

“For me those are the factors that will determine how quickly we can settle another agreement,” he says.

Maida expects by the end of the year Nelson firefighters will be further back of their counterparts.

“We’re guessing we’ll still find ourselves about eight per cent behind. We’re hopeful the city understands we still have ground to make up in future rounds of bargaining.

“Hopefully we don’t go down the arbitration road again. It’s very expensive for both parties.”

Maida estimates the union incurred about $50,000 in costs during the process while Cormack says the city paid out about $27,000.

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