“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. It’s frustrating because the cost of living goes up and wages don’t go up.”
— Wade Ritchie, president of the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association
More than two years after firefighter contracts with the City of Brandon ended, the two sides will finally meet for arbitration hearings, which are scheduled to begin today.
Lengthy negotiations between the union and the city began in the fall of 2011, but the two sides were intractable and no deal could be reached. As Ritchie and Brandon city manager Scott Hildebrand have previously stated, the sticking point is wages.
Though the city had offered six per cent over three years — a two per cent increase for 2012, 2013 and 2014 — the union came to the negotiating table with its sights set a bit higher. Last March, the city disclosed to news media that the union was demanding a 17 per cent raise over two years (essentially 8.5 per cent per year), a 30 per cent increase in benefits for firefighter/paramedics, and a 34 per cent increase in pay for dispatchers paired with a similar increase in benefits.
It was a hardball tactic meant to drain public support for the union position, but apparently it wasn’t dissuasive enough. As the Sun reported on Saturday, the union is now asking for 21 per cent over four years — nine per cent, six per cent, three per cent and three per cent.
Public opinion and taxpayers be damned, apparently.
But Ritchie says the city’s offer is “way too low,” referencing other contracts such as the one for the Brandon Police Association.
“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.”
The service our firefighters provide is highly important to this community, but the idea that a firefighter’s job is equal to that of a police officer is debatable, in our opinion.
That the union members feel “slighted” by the city’s offer is also appalling. Firefighters, like their peers in the public sector, are already well-paid, and taxpayers should not be expected to cough up these ridiculous wage hikes.
Ritchie is right about one thing, though — the city is offering less to the firefighters/paramedics than what the police actually received. The latest three-year contract with the police union saw a salary increase of 8.75 per cent over three years — three per cent in the first year, three per cent in the second year and 2.75 in the third year, for sworn members, retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year.
Further to that, the city’s 2012 public salary disclosure report showed that 41 average firefighters — not including lieutenants, acting lieutenants, prevention officers, training officers or captains — were making well over the $50,000 threshold. Of those, 19 made between $80,000 and $108,000, while 18 others were in the $70,000 to $80,000 range.
In comparison, of the 43 ordinary police constables noted in the same report, 34 made more than $80,000.
But while unions are distracted by apple and orange salary debates, we note that a typical Brandonite will never see these kinds of wages. The median income for an average Brandon family, according to Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey, was $73,245 in 2011.
Why then is the union asking for 21 per cent over four years, at the risk of appearing greedy and stoking public anger?
The answer is simple. When negotiations end up in arbitration, it’s a general rule of thumb that neither side gets exactly what it wants. So the union’s position is to aim high, and hopefully end up somewhere in the middle.
For a good example of this strategy in action, look no further than the city’s contract with the aforementioned dispatchers that was finalized through arbitration last month. After arbitration, it was ruled that the emergency dispatch members would receive three annual increases of 3.4 per cent for 2012-14 and an additional five per cent next year, adding up to 15.2 per cent over four years, or, compounded, slightly more than 16 per cent.
Firefighters provide an essential service, and like the police, are unable to legally strike. Certainly, then, a process like arbitration is a necessary evil. And strong unions, like those of the police and firefighter/paramedics, are unfortunately all too adept at working the system.