Bill 57 would give cities’ ‘ability to pay’ argument more heft with their firefighter unions
TORONTO — The Ontario government is planning to give municipalities such as Cornwall more ammunition to use against firefighter unions when they are forced to go to binding arbitration to settle contract disputes.
For the past several collective agreements, the Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association has taken the City of Cornwall before an arbitrator and argued successfully their members should be paid on par with what firefighters earn in other parts of Ontario, including in Toronto. They’ve also argued to be compensated on par with what the city provides to Cornwall Community Police Service officers.
During these proceedings, Cornwall and other municipalities like it have argued they cannot afford to give firefighters parity with their colleagues in large cities. The problem with this argument has been that, technically, it isn’t true.
The municipality can always pay for the wages and benefits increase by raising taxes or taking the money from other parts of the budget. Arbitrators have consistently ruled that just because city councillors do not want to do those things to avoid the political consequences does not mean the city is unable to afford the increases.
Now the provincial government is putting forward Bill 57, an omnibus bill that would, among many other things, amend the Fire Protection and Prevention Act in a way that would give the city ’s arguments more teeth.
If the legislation passes, which it is almost certain to, arbitrators would be required to consider other settlements the municipality has reached with its other employees to see what it is paying them, rather than just what other firefighters in other cities are paid. They would also have to consider “economic criteria like labour markets, property tax, and local factors affecting that community.”
In addition, the bill would give both the municipality and the firefighters union the ability to ask for written reasons from the arbitrator explaining why they ruled the way they did and what criteria they used. It would also introduce single-person arbitration panels instead of the three-person system where there are one neutral arbitrator and two hired by the municipality and the union, respectively.
“Our government believes these changes will improve accountability, transparency, and efficiency in the interest arbitration process,” said Labour Minister Laurie Scott in a statement. “An interest arbitration system that drags out decisions for years is unfair to both municipalities and firefighters.”
The Standard-Freeholder reached out to the Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association for reaction to the amendments in Bill 57 but was referred to the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association, which is leading the charge against the changes.
the association’ s executive vice president, mark train, said they were shocked by the province’ s decision to go ahead with the changes to binding arbitration, which he says are being made without any consultation with firefighters. on top of that, the firefighters association was in Queens Park on tuesday to apply for standing so it could speak about the changes and suggest its own amendments to the economic affairs committee, which was reviewing bill 57.
“we were denied standing on the bill while other stakeholders were granted that, such as the association of municipalities of ontario (amo), and even the town of caledon. but not the ontario Professional Firefighters,” fumed train.
the professional firefighters association rejects the notion the arbitration system as it is currently structured does not do enough take into account municipalities ability to pay, and argues the changes to give those arguments more weight do not make sense in practice.
comparing firefighter’s wages to other municipal workers rather than just other firefighters, said train, overlooks the fact firefighters have very different jobs than other public servants with unique risks that include possible death and long-term health risks from exposure to carcinogens or traumatic experiences.
“there’s no other job like firefighting in a municipality,” said train.
Keeping three-person board of arbitration is also more desirable, said train, because having a person on the panel arguing each side of the dispute to the neutral arbitrator leads to “a sound solution when there’s an impasse.” with just one arbitrator, the professional firefighters association worries that single person will have to deliberate on their own without the benefit of talking potential resolutions through with others. this could lead to decisions with unintended consequences for the municipality or firefighters.
despite their provincial counterpart’s misgivings about the changes, it is also true that the cornwall Professional Firefighters have been very successful in getting favourable decisions out from arbitrators; a fact has caused a fair bit of consternation at city hall. cornwall city councillors in the past have expressed exasperationwith the fact that the system does give more weight to arguments that the city can not afford pay parity with larger municipalities.
many of the arbitration system’s most vocal critics from the past term such as mark macdonald and andre rivet tea reno longer on council. but during the election, coun. todd bennett was one of the candidates who argued there needed to be some changes made to make the city’s ability to pay more of a factor in decisions.
when asked what he makes of the amendments in bill 57, bennett said that from what he has seen of them, he thinks the changes would be good for the city of cornwall. that being said, he also believes it would be better for everyone if the city and the firefighters could reach a deal without going to arbitration.
“People don’t want these services cut, they just want them to be more affordable. So i think this new legislation will help us control the costs and make sure that firefighters are being paid well enough that they want to be here, but takes into account that this community takes has a much lower cost of living than it does in toronto. i think pay should reflect that,” said bennett.
the Standard-Freeholder asked train if members’ actions had made this intervention from Queen’s Park inevitable.
“i don’t think we brought this on ourselves. we think a lot of this was brought by amo,” said train. “a lot of this was more than 400 municipalities speaking for just a few that are actually struggling (with the cost of firefighters) most municipalities aren’t affected at all by it, but their collective voice was so strong, the government took heed.”
none of the executives from amo were available to comment before thursday afternoon, but the organizationdid provide materials showing it has been lobbying for changes to the arbitration system since at least 2013. [email protected]media.com