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This article was published 13/3/2012 (3505 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WINNIPEG — A lawyer representing the City of Brandon defended the termination of former firefighter Wade Ritchie during a Manitoba Labour Board reinstatement hearing on Tuesday, saying he had threatened and intimidated another firefighter.
Through its lawyer, Grant Mitchell, the city alleged Ritchie sent threatening letters to former Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association president Terry Parlow, demanding that he not apply for a posted lieutenant’s job within the department. They further alleged that Parlow would face discipline from the union if he did not withdraw from the application process when Parlow did apply.
Mitchell also called Ritchie, who is the current local union president, a liar who could not be trusted as an employee.
"(Ritchie’s lawyer Garth Smorang) says that his actions were not in his capacity as an employee but as a union executive," Mitchell said. "It’s true, we’re not asserting he was fighting a fire when these incidents occurred. But we are equally firm that when an employee of the City of Brandon violates respectful workplace requirements …whether they do that while wearing the hat of a union president or as deputy chief, they are accountable and are open to discipline."
Then when referring to an email exchange in October with city manager Scott Hildebrand, Mitchell said Ritchie made statements he knew to be false in an email. Ritchie was suspended for five days and was demoted after the city alleged Ritchie engaged in deceitful conduct for his role in an email exchange regarding union contract negotiations.
"The problem with Mr. Ritchie is he acts dishonestly, and when confronted, he tries to cover it up and lies about it," Mitchell said. "That’s the problem with reinstating someone with that history. He can’t be trusted."
Legal counsel representing Ritchie argued he was acting to defend the union’s collective agreement when he was dismissed on Jan. 26.
Garth Smorang, the union’s lawyer, said Ritchie should be reinstated because his dismissal has negatively impacted the union’s ability to negotiate a new collective agreement with the city. The current contract they work under has expired and a deadline of Dec. 31 is in place to get a new deal done.
"The objectives (of Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act) highlight not only harmonious relations, but highlights the practice and procedure of collective bargaining between the employers and unions as the freely designated representatives of employees," Smorang said. "A key piece of this legislation is that process. In large measure the act enshrines the equal footing of unions and employers in negotiating and enforcing terms and conditions of employment."
Mitchell disputed the union’s allegation that Ritchie’s firing had a chilling effect on the union’s ability to represent its members.
"There is virtually no evidence, I’d say zero evidence, that proves that," Mitchell said. "The closest that this comes to showing this has a chilling effect is speculation and bare assertion from counsel that there is a chilling effect. There’s zero evidence."
He noted that the existence of red "I Support Wade Ritchie" stickers on the back of pickup trucks in Brandon does not suggest the union is afraid of repercussions from management, and that the presence of approximately 30 firefighters, several wearing department shirts and jackets shows that the employees don’t fear management reprisals.
"In fact the dismissal of a union president can have the opposite effect," Mitchell said. "It can have a galvanizing effect and build support for the union. Has it had a chilling effect here or a galvanizing effect?
"Look at the large bundle of media reports. Is the union running for cover? Is it unable to conduct the business of the local? Have they been silent on the issue because they are so cowed of a chilling effect of the termination of Mr. Ritchie? Read that stuff. Boldly stating how hard they are going to fight and how much support they are going to give."
The union’s request for reinstatement was being conducted under a section of law that has been in force since 1985 but has never been used, Mitchell said.
He said while the union states Ritchie’s ability to negotiate a collective agreement for the union is compromised because he ceased to be an employee of the city, that’s not the case, noting that the city’s lead negotiator in the talks is not employed by the city.
Smorang said Ritchie was only acting to defend a collective agreement Parlow helped to negotiate, which placed restrictions on who could apply for a promotion to lieutenant.
The agreement states that only those with the rank of acting lieutenant Level 2 are eligible to apply for promotion to lieutenant, and Parlow held an acting lieutenant Level 1 status. Parlow had told union executives that he would not be applying for the lieutenant’s position. After applying for and receiving the promotion, the union alleges Parlow was in breach of the collective agreement and asked him to explain his actions. The union filed a grievance and attempted to reprimand Parlow for his alleged breach of the collective agreement. The union’s letters to Parlow were signed by Ritchie, as he was the local president of the union.
Those letters were then used as evidence against Ritchie in a complaint to city management filed by Parlow, where he alleges he was being intimidated and threatened by the union.
On Jan. 13, shortly after Parlow received his letter from the union, Ritchie was told to appear at a meeting with the deputy chiefs and to bring union representation. There, he was relieved of his duties and placed on paid leave pending an investigation of his conduct, but was not told of the reason for the investigation. On Jan. 26, he attended another meeting where he was fired, and only then was he was the subject of a complaint of harassment and intimidation, Smorang said.
The hearing room was jammed with more than 35 people, including firefighters from Winnipeg, Brandon and Portage la Prairie. Brandon city manager Scott Hildebrand as well as Brandon Fire and Emergency Services deputy Chiefs Garry Bell and Steve Romanik were also present along with Linda Poole, the city’s deputy human resources director.
Ritchie’s employment record, listed as a factor in his dismissal was outlined at the hearing.
Fifteen years ago, Ritchie submitted a bill for reimbursement that was $3.86 higher than the actual bill. He was suspended for four days and demoted. A source close to the case said that reprimand had not been expunged from Ritchie’s employment record.
He had also received a disciplinary warning in January 2010 for not following departmental instructions. That letter was not to be considered an official form of discipline, Smorang said.
Then, in March 2011, a non-disciplinary warning was issued to Ritchie.
The October 2011 suspension over emails came after that, which triggered the union’s unfair labour practice suit. They referred to the suspension as an anti-union practice.
The hearing’s presiding officers did not render a decision Tuesday.
It is not known when the decision will be released to the public.