The City of Nelson and its firefighters are resorting to binding arbitration after four years without a labour contract.
“We are at an impasse after a year and a half of bargaining,” said Marc Thibault, the president of the Nelson local of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
“Late last year both sides agreed to bring in a mediator from the Labour Relations Board, but he was unable to make progress. Between then and now we had a few more meetings with the city, but no agreement could be reached. As a result, we are now in the process of selecting an arbitrator.”
Firefighters provide an essential service and are therefore prohibited by legislation from striking. So if they cannot come to an agreement with their employer, an arbitrator must be called in to make a binding decision.
Nelson firefighters’ previous contract, which expired in 2011, was also decided by arbitration. The result was a 24.5 per cent increase over five years.
Lorne West, the western Canada Vice President of the IAFF, told the Star that the wage increases in that contract resulted from the arbitrator attempting to bring Nelson firefighters closer to the wage and benefit levels of other fire departments in the interior of BC. He denied that they were trying to catch up to Vancouver, an allegation the city has made in the past when it has argued that small cities don’t have resources comparable to Vancouver and therefore should not be held to the same wage standards.
Firefighters have rebutted that argument by saying a fire is a fire, regardless of its location. West said a first class firefighter in Vancouver earns $40.87 hourly under a contract that expired in December 2015.
Of the 52 firefighter union locals in BC, 30 have now signed agreements extending to 2019, and the prevailing wage rate in those agreements for a first class firefighter is $41.93 per hour, according to West.
He said the prevailing wage increase in those agreements is 2.5 per cent per year. That is the case in an agreement recently signed with firefighters in Kelowna, for example.
The rate paid to a first class firefighter in Nelson under its expired contract is $34.96, West said.
He said he does not know the size of the increase Nelson firefighters are asking for, but he says they are currently among the lowest paid firefighters in Canada, and that their pensions are below par as well. He said that the 10-member firefighters’ local in Nelson and the eight-member Fernie local are at the bottom of the pay and pension ladder in B.C.
West said an arbitration can cost up to $80,000 for each side and that the Nelson firefighter local has to cover that cost itself, without help from its international union.
Neither city manager Kevin Cormack, who heads labour negotiations for the city, nor Mayor Deb Kozak, were willing to comment on the current state of negotiations other than to confirm that an arbitrator is being sought. Cormack added that “until an arbitration actually happens there is always the opportunity to still reach an agreement.”
According to the city’s 2015 annual report, fire protection services used four per cent of the city’s $39-million operations budget that year.
Status of other City of Nelson collective agreements
Canadian Union of Public Employees
Number of city employees: 74 (66 full time, 8 part time and occasional casual employees) plus 15 library employees, some of them part-time)
Contract expired: December 31, 2015
Last contract pay increase: 6 per cent over three years
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Number of city employees: 11
Contract expires: April, 2017.
Current contract pay increase: 10 per cent over five years and four months.
Nelson Police Association
Number of employees: 16 police officers (plus one to be added), four dispatch (plus one to be added).
Contract expired: 2012
Pay increase in last contract: 21 per cent over five years for police officers, 10 per cent over five years for dispatch employees