JILLIAN AUSTIN /BRANDON SUN
Members of the gallery listen as the three-day firefighter arbitration hearing wrapped up at the Victoria Inn on Thursday.
The contract dispute between the City of Brandon and its firefighters is now in the hands of the arbitrator.
Lawyers representing the city and the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association each submitted their case to the arbitration board over two and a half days. On Thursday, the hearing came to a close.
"We are confident in our case, and only time will tell now," said city manager Scott Hildebrand. "Our case was strong, it was well laid out. We’re now in a holding pattern until the arbitrator delivers his decision."
The arbitrator’s decision is expected within the next two or three months.
Arbitrator Michael Werier, along with the city’s nominee, Rob Simpson, and the union’s nominee, Alex Forrest, will meet for executive sessions to review all the evidence and submissions.
"We’ll see whether there’s a consensus among us or if not, where we stand on the issues," Werier said. "The parties are obviously interested in getting something soon than later, we’ll do our best efforts to make a decision as soon as we’re able to."
It has been 27 months since the contract ended for Brandon firefighters in December 2011.
Union president Wade Ritchie said to have the arbitration hearing finally complete is a "huge relief."
"Now it’s just a waiting game and you sit on pins and needles waiting for the decision," he said, adding he is happy with the evidence that was presented on behalf of the union.
"Our evidence is strong."
The parties weren’t able to come to an agreement despite lengthy negotiations, which began in the fall of 2011.
The union is asking for a 21 per cent wage increase over four years — nine per cent, six per cent, three per cent and three per cent.
The city is offering six per cent over three years, at two per cent each year.
The union has argued Brandon firefighters should be getting comparable wages to local police, as well as fire departments in similar-sized Prairie cities. As it is now, they say the gap is widening in both areas.
The city, on the other hand, says while comparator cities are useful, it’s only one aspect. The city’s legal team argued that Manitoba’s economy is much different than other provinces, and some of the comparator cities are almost twice Brandon’s size.
Grant Mitchell, the city’s lawyer, argued that police are unique from all other professions, including firefighters, and he is not aware of a single, current example where firefighters make the same wage as police.
The union’s legal team rebutted with fairly recent examples where there was virtual parity between police and firefighters in Brandon, between 2002 and 2005.
The union is also asking for retirement enhancements and for overtime to be double-time, when a firefighter is called in to work on a day off.
The city has proposed the introduction of a new classification — part-time/casual firefighters. The union’s lawyer, Garth Smorang, noted that there has never been part-time/casual firefighters in the bargaining unit in Brandon.
"The city has never proposed this prior to this round," he said.
The union says there are not enough details on this new proposal, and didn’t think the city successfully demonstrated a need for it.
"We’re not opposed to sitting down and discussing it, but the city has never presented what they’re going to do with it," Ritchie said. "Do these numbers become part of the bargaining unit, we would expect so, but that was never offered … Even though those positions aren’t in the collective agreement, we still have an onus and a right to be part of that process to bring it in."
Hildebrand said the reason the city has proposed this new job classification is simply to cut overtime costs.
"Costs are nearly $700,000 and they need to be reined in," he said. "The union said that we didn’t provide any details or justification, but if we did I’m sure the argument would be that we didn’t consult with them, so you lose either way when you’re discussing those types of things."
The city also submitted a proposal to change the way job promotions are handled within the fire department. Since the early 2000s, the department has used a "step-lock" promotion, which is based on seniority.
The city claims the union is "manipulating the system," by only putting one member forward when a position opens up.
"If it was open and clear for all employees to apply that are qualified, then at least we’d have a fair competition and the best candidate for the job would be chosen," Hildebrand said.
But the union president takes exception to that claim.
"We don’t manipulate the system, we believe in seniority and we believe in experience because with experience comes confidence," Ritchie said.
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Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 4, 2014