Taxpayers on hook for 60% of Winnipeg firefighters union president's salary and benefits, agreement shows

For the past four years, Winnipeg taxpayers have been paying nearly two-thirds of Alex Forrest’s six-figure salary, even though he’s been on leave from his job as fire captain to work full time as president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg.

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

Since 2014, the City of Winnipeg has been covering 60 per cent of Alex Forrest's salary and benefits as the president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. (CBC)

Winnipeg taxpayers have been paying nearly two-thirds of Alex Forrest's six-figure union salary for the past four years, even though he's been on leave from his job as fire captain to work full-time as president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

Unlike other unions representing city employees, which reimburse taxpayers for the full amount of their presidents' salaries, the UFFW pays back only 40 per cent of their president's compensation.

The deal was struck in January 2014 while Forrest — who has been president of the UFFW since 1997 — held the rank of lieutenant. It was put to paper in a letter of agreement signed March 4, 2014.

The City of Winnipeg said its current labour-relations staff were not involved in negotiating the deal and therefore couldn't explain why it was made in the first place, but added that the 2014 letter of agreement was an improvement, from the city's perspective, on Forrest's previous contract.

"It is worth noting that the city was paying 100 per cent of Alex Forrest's salary as UFFW president prior to the 2014 [letter of agreement]," said Michelle Finley, corporate communications officer with the City of Winnipeg.

"The 2014 LOA improves on this arrangement by recouping 40 per cent of his salary while president."

The City of Winnipeg and the United Firefighters of Winnipeg signed their latest collective agreement in April 2017. There was no proposal made to amend the 2014 letter of agreement relating to Forrest's compensation as UFFW president. (Bert Savard/CBC)

The city couldn't say when the original deal was struck — only that it would have been sometime during former fire chief Jim Brennan's term.

Brennan was chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service between 2007 and 2011 and is credited with smoothing over the kinks during the amalgamation of the city's fire department and emergency medical services — a process that began in 1997 and took 10 years to complete.

"We have not been able to locate a written copy of this agreement so cannot confirm the start date," Finley said in an email to CBC News.

Although the city and UFFW signed a new collective agreement in 2017, there was no proposal made to amend the 2014 letter of agreement, because it remains in effect as long as Forrest remains president of the firefighters union.

But Finley said in order to prevent this sort of situation from occurring again, the city's labour relations team added a clause to future negotiations with all unions.

Going forward, pre-existing agreements covered in letters or memoranda of understanding, or letters of agreement that are "not brought forward and ratified during negotiations will be considered null and void by the parties," Finley wrote.

The latest contract agreed to give Winnipeg firefighters a 1.8 per cent raise in their first year, then three annual two per cent raises. The agreement is retroactive to Dec. 25, 2016, when the previous contract expired.

Other unions asked to stay quiet: sources

Sources told CBC News that Forrest spoke to other union presidents in light of CBC inquiries and asked at least one not to comment on this story.

One person said Forrest suggested unions needed to maintain solidarity, and that this story was aimed at damaging his reputation ahead of the 2018 municipal elections.

In a text message to CBC, Forrest said he was contacted by one union president who wanted to offer his support.

"I have spoken to many people as Union leaders give me the heads up as I would give them a heads up if the media was obviously fishing for a story," Forrest wrote.

But he did not respond to questions about the letter of agreement, or whether or not he asked any union leaders to refrain from commenting on this story.

According to the city's 2016 compensation disclosure, Forrest earned $116,342 — nearly $70,000 of which was paid for by ratepayers. (Chris Glover/CBC)
Forrest declined requests for an interview, but told CBC News in a text message that he "worked shifts prior to 2012" while also acting as UFFW president. He did not clarify what proportion of his duties were related to his union work.

In addition to paying 60 per cent of Forrest's salary and benefits, the city also agreed to promote him.

"While on Union Leave, the President will be eligible for promotion to Captain," the letter of agreement said.

The following are key items from the agreement:

  • City to cover 60 per cent of the UFFW president's salary and benefits.
  • Salary and benefits at the lieutenant classification pay scale.
  • City to cover 60 per cent of Workers Compensation Board claims should the UFFW president be injured on the job.
  • Unused sick leave may be cashed out and sick time utilization is assumed to be the same as the average working firefighter.

According to the city's 2016 compensation disclosure, Forrest earned $116,342 — nearly $70,000 of which was paid for by ratepayers.

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.

The table below shows the three years during which Forrest was paid by the city under the letter of agreement. Figures for 2017 are not yet available.

Year Total salary City portion
2016 $116,342 $69,805
2015 $104,550 $62,730
2014 $101,671 $61,003

*Source: City of Winnipeg compensation disclosure

Councillor unaware of deal

Coun. Scott Gillingham, the City of Winnipeg's finance chair, said he didn't know about the letter of agreement until late this week, even though city council recently voted to accept the 2017 UFFW contract.

"We were not aware of this. This information was not included when we voted on the UFFW contract," said Gillingham.

Gillingham said he asked city officials why and was told only the items that had changed in the contract were brought to councillors' attention.

"As I read through this letter of agreement from 2014, it does state that really, in essence, the agreement is in place as long as Alex Forrest is the president," said Gillingham."He's still the president — that's something that hasn't changed, so because it hasn't changed it wasn't brought forward."  

Coun. Scott Gillingham Gillingham says all unions are treated the same by the city, despite the fact the city pays part of Forrest's salary and not the salaries of any other union presidents. (CBC News)

The councillor doesn't know if the agreement can be changed and said that would require legal consultation, which he said the city has not initiated.

Gillingham said despite the fact the city pays part of Forrest's salary, and not the salaries of any other union presidents, all unions are treated the same.

"We always try to, as the chair of finance, always try to make sure we are careful [with] taxpayers dollars," he said.

"I do understand that there are agreements that have been made prior to my time that are binding agreements.… Once the terms of this agreement have ended, once Mr. Forrest is no longer the president, then certainly it would be my view that it be changed so that the city is compensated for the UFFW's president. One hundred per cent compensation is the case with other union leadership."

Forrest earned law degree while fighting fires

Forrest joined the Winnipeg Fire Department in 1989 and worked as a full-time firefighter for eight years. He also managed to earn a law degree in that time.

According to his biography on the UFFW website, Forrest graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a bachelor of arts degree and graduated from the University of Manitoba law school in 1995. He was called to the bar in 1996.

"All of Alex's schooling was done while working full time as a Winnipeg Firefighter," his bio says.

Prior to becoming a firefighter, Forrest was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, serving in the 3rd Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

He is also a Canadian trustee for the International Association of Fire Fighters. In a 2015 biography of Forrest for an IAFF conference presentation, he was described as a practising lawyer specializing in labour law, workers compensation and statutory interpretation.

Forrest has co-authored a book about cancer, firefighters and the need for proper compensation.

What the other collective agreements say

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE):

"Leave of absence, with pay, shall be granted for any period of not more than 12 months when requested by the Union in the case of an employee who is elected President of the Union and may be renewed for a like period at the request of the Union, made not less than 30 days prior to the expiry of the said period. Such employee shall receive his or her rate of pay and benefits as provided in the Agreement and the Union shall reimburse the City for all wages and cost of said benefits, including the City's share of pension contributions paid by the City during the period of absence, such reimbursement to be made immediately on accounts being rendered by the City."

Winnipeg Police Association (WPA):

"The Association agrees to reimburse the City for the wages and benefits paid pursuant to the Agreement dated October 1, 1994."

Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU):

"Where such leave of absence has been granted the Union shall reimburse the City for one hundred percent (100%) of all wages and benefit costs for such employees for the period of the approved leave of absence. Such reimbursement to be made immediately on accounts being rendered by the City."

Read the letter of agreement on Forrest's compensation

On mobile? Read the agreement here.