In October, the Nelson Firefighters Association and labour negotiators from the city met for two days with an arbitrator.
Nothing came of it. So they are going to meet again in March.
Nelson’s firefighters have been without a union contract for six years. Fire protection is officially an essential service, so fire fighters are not allowed to go on strike. If they reach a bargaining impasse with their employer, as they have in this case, an arbitrator must be called in to make a binding decision.
Nelson firefighters’ current expired contract, which gave them a 24.5 per cent increase over five years, was also decided by arbitration.
The Star called the city’s head negotiator, Kevin Cormack, and the firefighters’ representative, Marc Thibeau. Neither would comment on the arbitration process because it is still ongoing.
Firefighter wages are a hot issue in municipal government circles across the province. City councils in smaller municipalities accuse unions of attempting to match wages paid by the City of Vancouver— wages smaller cities can’t afford, they say. The union says a fire is a fire regardless of its location and that firefighters in B.C. are among the lowest paid in the country.
The City of Nelson paid a total of $15,306,236 in wages and benefits last year, up 4.5 per cent from 2015. Employees of the fire department received 10.2 per cent of that (calculated by the city including a year-end adjustment of what salaries might be under a new upcoming collective agreement).
Annual wages, not including benefits, for Nelson firefighters under the expired agreement range from a probationary firefighter at $53,592 to the assistant fire chief at $95,700 based on a 42-hour work week.
Last year the City of Nelson and other small municipalities took their concerns about firefighter wages to the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) asking that the organization lobby the government to change the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act to give arbitrators more flexibility to take smaller cities’ smaller budgets into account.
The resolution read like this:
“Whereas recent firefighter wage arbitrations have awarded wage parity with lower mainland local governments regardless of local circumstances of the subject local government;
“And whereas the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act requires an arbitrator to have regard for the need to maintain internal consistency and equity amongst employees and the terms and conditions of employment for other groups of employees who are employed by the employer;
“Therefore be it resolved that UBCM advocate to the Minister of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training to exercise statutory authority to specify that arbitrators are to give consideration to local conditions.”
In a written ministry response to that resolution, provided to the Star by the UBCM, the ministry stated that it has no intention of changing the legislation. It said the law as it stands fulfills the purpose of avoiding strikes and lockouts. It said the relative rarity of arbitrated settlements underscores this success. And it stated that the Act is broad enough for arbitrators to take local conditions into account if they wish.
“These criteria are purposely broad,” the statement reads, “and allow the parties to raise concerns before the arbitrator so that appropriate weight can be given to each party’s concerns. The criteria already includes a requirement to consider local conditions, such as the term and conditions for other employees of the employer, as well as the interest and welfare of the community served by the employer and employees.”