Should Nelson’s firefighters and police officers be paid the same wage rates as their counterparts in Vancouver? Or should their wages be independent of the big city and based on local economic conditions? Those questions are at the heart of the city’s labour negotiations with both of those groups.
In their most recent contract, the police got a pay increase of 21 per cent over five years (4.5 per cent in 2008 and 2009, and 4 percent in 2010, 2011, and 2012.)
That resulted in Nelson police officers’ wages ranging from a probationary officer at $62,052 per year to a sergeant at $102,467 per year. That agreement expired in 2012 and so far there is no sign of the beginnings of negotiations for a new one.
Waiting for Vancouver?
The city and the Nelson Police Association have not started labour negotiations yet because it benefits the union to wait until its Vancouver counterpart signs an agreement. And that usually takes a while.
Former mayor John Dooley expressed dissatisfaction with this at a council meeting in 2013, saying that “there is no point in trying to negotiate with them” because the police and fire unions insist on waiting for big city agreements that they can use as a precedent. (The city’s agreement with the International Association of Fire Fighters also expired in 2012, and the same issue applies.)
Nate Holt, a Nelson police officer and the head of the Nelson Police Association, says waiting is justified.
“I know we have been criticized in the past for trying to follow on big city contracts,” Holt said in a recent interview with the Star, “but from our point of view what we are trying to do is let those bigger entities spend the big dollars and do the heavy lifting and go to arbitration if necessary and find out where the base line [for wage rates] is.”
Arbitration and essential services
Police and fire employees in BC are 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.
Arbitration can be costly, and according to Holt can run from $20,000 to $50,000 for each side, depending on the complexity of the issues. Those are big dollars for a small police local and a small city like Nelson.
Vancouver’s newest contract with its police force, signed in 2014, went to arbitration and resulted in an increase of 2.33 per cent each year for three years. The result is that the basic rate for a first class constable in Vancouver will be $92,165 in 2015. The corresponding rate in Nelson under its expired agreement is $81,647 — a difference of about 12 per cent.
Of the 12 cities in BC including Nelson that employ their own police forces, Oak Bay and Central Saanich are the only two that are approximately the size of Nelson. Police employees in those two cities have recently signed wage agreements that match Vancouver’s.
According to Nelson’s 2013 annual report, policing and bylaw enforcement accounted for 10 per cent of the city’s operations budget that year. The collective agreement between the Nelson Police Association and the city is attached at the end of this article.
“Both of the associations [police and fire unions] are influenced by a provincial mandate,” says city manager Kevin Cormack, who heads bargaining for the city. “They want to know what the settlements are primarily in the Lower Mainland before they are willing to engage in meaningful bargaining at the local level.
“In Nelson we focus on completing the collective agreements first that are totally bargained at the local level, being IBEW [Nelson Hydro] and CUPE [most other city workers],” Cormack said.
About 75 per cent of Nelson’s operating budget goes to wages and benefits, and much of that is governed by collective agreements between the city and four unions: IAFF, NPA, CUPE, and IBEW. Negotiations of those collective agreements don’t often make the news, but they have a huge impact on the budget, the services the city offers, and its relationship with its staff.
How much do Nelson firefighters make?
The last time the 11 members of the Nelson local of the IAFF negotiated with the city an arbitrator had to be called in. The resulting decision was 6.5 per cent in 2008, 6.5 per cent in 2009, and 5.75 per cent in 2010 and 2011, for a combined increase of 24.5 per cent over four years.
Annual wages, not including benefits, for Nelson firefighters under that 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.
The 2008-12 agreement brought firefighters from 86 per cent of the provincial average wage rate to their current 94.5 per cent, according to Marc Thibault, who heads the Nelson local of the IAFF. He says Nelson and Fernie are the lowest paid of the 52 professional municipal fire departments in the province.
The first signs of movement toward a new agreement for the Nelson local of the IAFF is a first meeting with the city tentatively set for May, says Thibault. He says the time lag of a few years before starting to negotiate is not unusual.
“It is not one side or the other dragging their feet,” he said. “It is kind of a mutual thing. Rather than make a mistake that might drag us into an arbitration later, it is cheaper to let it sit and see what the rate is going to be.
Trying to catch up
“Our main goal is to catch up. I know we are not going to get what Vancouver does. But I used to be a teacher and when I got into the fire service I was comparing the wages, and I realized we make less than teachers do. But teachers make the same wage across the province, so if teachers are allowed to make the same across the province, why not firefighters?”
According to the city’s 2013 annual report, fire protection accounted for five per cent of the city’s operations budget that year.
Having two collective agreements running far beyond their expiry date can make it difficult for the city staff to budget accurately. They know they will have to pay out a lump sum retroactive payment sometime in the future, but they don’t know when or how much. Chief financial officer Colin McClure says he budgets for increases that are close to the inflation rate. The average inflation rate in Canada was 0.94 in 2013 and 1.9 in 2014.