The contract dispute between local firefighters and the City of Brandon has been called a "David and Goliath scenario" by the lawyer representing the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association.
Tuesday marked Day 1 of the long-awaited arbitration hearing, and first up was Garth Smorang, legal counsel for the firefighters’ association.
The union is small, representing only 75 fire/paramedic members, Smorang said, and is "one-tenth" the size of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.
"The city on the other hand has significant resources, there are people whose job it is daily … to prepare proposals and research bargaining positions," he said. "It is well-resourced both in terms of personnel and money."
Smorang presented to the three-member arbitration board on Tuesday — chair Michael Werier, the city’s nominee, Rob Simpson, and the union’s nominee, Alex Forrest. He outlined four issues that the union has referred to arbitration, including the term of the contract.
The union is asking for a four-year contract, with a 21 per cent wage increase — nine per cent, six per cent, three per cent and three per cent.
The city isn’t budging from its original offer of a six per cent increase over three years — a two per cent increase for 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The contract ended in December 2011, and despite lengthy negotiations, including 10 face-to-face bargaining meetings, the union and the city were unable to come to an agreement.
"The union is now 27 months without a new contract, as of today," Smorang said. "I’m going to assume … that you will take in the neighbourhood of two months … to issue an award ... If the city’s position is granted by you — a three-year contract — that will be virtually seven months till its end."
Smorang said preparing proposals "literally weeks after" an award, is not in anyone’s interest.
The hearing, held at the Victoria Inn, brought out roughly 50 people — 25 on the city’s side, 25 on the union’s side. Tuesday was the union’s chance to present its case.
The union is seeking double time for overtime when a firefighter is called in to work when they are off-duty.
Smorang referenced the fact that Brandon police officers get double time on all overtime, except for training. Also, he said four of five comparator cities have double time for firefighters when called in for any duty while off duty.
The union is also seeking enhancements to its retirement pay. Currently upon retirement, members are entitled to one day’s pay for each full year of service, maximum 45 days. The proposal is to increase retirement pay from one day to three days for each year of service, but keep the maximum at 45.
The fourth, and most contentious, issue is firefighter wages. Smorang spent most of the afternoon presenting facts on why firefighters should be getting comparable wages to local police officers, as well as comparator cities in western Canada.
"The stress of the job, of both fire and police, the shift work, the danger, the critical protection of the public role that they fulfil, the training and the skill level that is required" are all reasons why Smorang says arbitrators consistently make the police-to-fire comparison when determining wages.
Comparable cities include Prince Albert, Sask., Moose Jaw, Sask., Medicine Hat, Alta., Lethbridge, Alta., and Red Deer, Alta.
Smorang pointed out that between 1995 and 2005, firefighters in Brandon were receiving "almost equal" wages to the five-city average.
"Since 2005 we’ve seen a widening of that gap," he said.
In firefighters to police comparison, they were comparable between 1975 and 2005, but the gap began to widen there following that date as well. A new three-year contract was recently announced for Brandon Police Association, which sees a salary increase of 8.75 per cent over three years.
By 2011, firefighters were 10 per cent below their police counterparts, and depending on this contract, they could be 14 per cent behind in 2015.
Wade Ritchie, president of the union, said it’s important to stay competitive with other centres of similar size for recruitment and retention.
"Over the last five, six years, Brandon’s lost upwards of 20 firefighters to other departments" due to wage and working conditions, Ritchie said.
Ritchie said the gap between Brandon and its comparator cities is growing, currently below by 10 to 12 per cent.
Smorang presented several video clips of past Brandon City Council meetings, dating back to 2002, where council discussed past contracts that were decided upon using comparator cities.
"Analysis and comparators are always going to be there," city manager Scott Hildebrand said. "I think the arbitrators are going to have to weigh that out in their decision on how much local and interprovincial comparators are used. I understand that we’ve kind of relied on that for a while, but … times change and 2014 is much different than some of the videos that were shown in 2002."
Hildebrand said the union’s demand of 21 per cent over four years, plus the other significant contract enhancements is "alarming."
Leaving the hearing following Day 1, Ritchie said he is "very confident" with the union’s evidence.
"It’s like a sense of relief that it’s finally there," he said. "We’ve put a lot of hard work into this."
The City of Brandon presents its case today.
» Twitter: @jillianaustin