Bowman eyes loophole in firefighters contract to change union president's controversial pay deal

Mayor Brian Bowman may have found a loophole that would allow the city to renegotiate a controversial contract clause that has taxpayers on the hook for nearly two-thirds of the salary of Alex Forrest, president of the Winnipeg's firefighters union.

Union president Alex Forrest says 2014 agreement under which city pays most of his salary should stand

Mayor Brian Bowman thinks he’s found a loophole that could allow the city to renegotiate a controversial agreement with the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg that has taxpayers paying most of president Alex Forrest's salary. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Mayor Brian Bowman may have found a loophole that would allow the city to renegotiate a controversial contract clause that has taxpayers on the hook for nearly two-thirds of the salary of Alex Forrest, president of the Winnipeg's firefighters union.

The city struck a deal with the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg in January 2014, in which it agreed to pay 60 per cent of Forrest's salary while he was on leave from his job to work full-time for the union. The city had previously paid Forrest's full salary, although there was no written agreement to do so.

Other unions representing city employees reimburse taxpayers for the full amount of their presidents' salaries.

News of the 2014 agreement, outlined in a letter of understanding between the city and the union, broke in January. At the time, Bowman said he wasn't "happy about it" and called for it to be "scrapped as soon as possible." 

The city's 2016 compensation disclosure says Alex Forrest earned $116,342 — nearly $70,000 of which was paid for by ratepayers. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

The mayor's office said the firefighters' new contract, which was approved by council in April 2017, includes a letter of understanding that presents an opportunity to get a better deal for taxpayers.

The letter of understanding consists of just one sentence: "The parties agree that they will come to an agreement regarding union president leave and reimbursement." It is signed by both Forrest and a representative from the public service.

At Wednesday's executive policy committee meeting, Bowman presented a motion asking city council to direct staff to pursue 100 per cent reimbursement of Forrest's salary from the UFFW.

It also calls for staff to report back to council once an agreement has been reached or if, within 30 days, city negotiators cannot come to an agreement with the union.

Executive policy committee carried the motion unanimously.

Forrest disputes mayor's claim

But Forrest says his 2014 agreement still stands. He argued signing the letter of understanding last year upheld the agreement, which states the 60-40 wage split would continue until Forrest was no longer president of the union.

He said if the city wishes to change the agreement, it would have to put a proposal in writing before the city's contract with firefighters expires. The current contract expires at the end of 2020.

Still, he said he wants to have positive negotiations with the city and hear concerns councillors may have.

"We have always said if the city believes they need to reopen any specific clause of the contract due to concerns we are always re-open to trying to figure a solution," said Forrest in a written statement.

He declined to give an interview.

The former chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service says he tried to end a deal made by his predecessor that required the city to pay the full salary and benefits of firefighter union president Alex Forrest. 3:03

Motion goes to council next week

Bowman told reporters Wednesday his motion does not reopen the collective agreement reached with firefighters but provides direction to the public service with regards to executing the contract.

"I will sign the collective agreement as negotiated by the City of Winnipeg and the UFFW, which was voted on and ratified by council, including myself, in April 2017," Bowman said. 

"However, I believe it's in the best interest of both parties that direction be provided by council to the public service on how to proceed with discussions pursuant to the updated letter of understanding prior to me executing the collective agreement on behalf of council."

Bowman later clarified he will sign the collective agreement with firefighters after his motion has been presented to council, not necessarily after an agreement is reached with Forrest on his salary. 

Forrest earned $116,342 in 2016, says the city's compensation disclosure for that year, and nearly $70,000 of it was covered by taxpayers.

The 2014 letter of understanding also included a provision that allowed Forrest to be promoted to captain while working for the union, which gave him a pay raise.

In 2014 and 2015, before he was promoted, Forrest earned slightly less as a lieutenant, costing the city just over $60,000 for each of the two years.

Bowman's motion still needs final approval from council as a whole.

Mayor Brian Bowman may have found a loophole that would allow the city to renegotiate a controversial contract clause that has taxpayers on the hook for nearly two-thirds of the salary of Alex Forrest, president of the Winnipeg's firefighters union. 1:26

With files from Bartley Kives and Laura Glowacki