The wage dispute between the City of Brandon and its firefighters will finally head into arbitration proceedings next week.
The hearings are a long time coming, as members of the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association have been without a contract since December 2011.
“We are relieved that we’re finally at the point that we’re going to plead our case, and get it known to the public,” said Wade Ritchie, president of the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association. “It’s frustrating because the cost of living goes up, and wages don’t go up.”
The terms of the previous contract remain in place until a new agreement is reached.
Lengthy negotiations between the union and the city began in the fall of 2011, however, an agreement could not be reached.
The sticking point has been wage increases. The city is offering six per cent over three years — a two per cent increase for 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The union was originally asking for a 17 per cent raise over two years, however, it is now asking for 21 per cent over four years — nine per cent, six per cent, three per cent and three per cent.
“The gap was just too big,” said city manager Scott Hildebrand. “What was being asked for and what we were willing to agree to … the gap was too big and we are not willing to go there.”
As the two parties were not able to come to an agreement, the union applied for the arbitration process. They cannot strike because firefighters are an essential service.
“I’m looking for something that’s fair, something that is fair to our tax payers, and our residents first and foremost. That’s who I represent,” Hildebrand said. “We need to make sure we can afford the service going forward, so that’s really what I’m hoping to get out of that.”
Hildebrand pointed out that the city has been able to successfully negotiate all of the other union contracts with “good overall success, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case with the fire association.”
Ritchie says what the city is offering is simply “way too low.”
He referenced other contracts, such as the Brandon Police Association. A new three-year contract was recently announced, which sees a salary increase of 8.75 per cent over three years.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 69, which represents all city workers except for managers, emergency personnel and bus drivers, recently came to an agreement with the city for a 6.5 per cent increase over three years.
“We’re just feeling a little slighted,” Ritchie said. “And we feel as equals to the police, so we decided to go to an arbitrator for wages and let them decide.”
Ritchie also mentioned how city management received increases, ranging from 17 per cent to 30 per cent.
Hildebrand said back in 2011, there were a “handful of employees” who got adjustments based on their roles and responsibilities.
It was part of the non-union pay administration plan, which included the fire chief as one example.
Hildebrand said they were lagging for several years according to the consumer price index and a “one-time adjustment” needed to be made.
The city will also be asking for part-time employees to manage overtime and enhanced internal promotion process.
The union is looking for double-time for all overtime and an enhanced retirement benefit.
Contract arbitration begins Tuesday at the Victoria Inn. There will be a panel of three people — the main arbitrator, Michael Werier, the city’s nominee, Rob Simpson, and the union’s nominee, Alex Forrest.
“We have locals from other provinces coming in,” Ritchie said. “It’s going to be a full house.”