Chang­ing ar­bi­tra­tion

Bill 57 would give cities’ ‘abil­ity to pay’ ar­gu­ment more heft with their fire­fighter unions

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - FRONT PAGE - ALAN S. HALE

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

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