New Brunswick

Province to consider municipal request to change fire, police arbitration rules

The New Brunswick government says it will consider changes to binding arbitration long sought by municipalities to require consideration of a community's ability to pay for wage increases.

Labour leader says change would be opposed

Adam Lordon, mayor of Miramichi and president of the Cities of New Brunswick Association, says arbitration boards should consider a community's ability to pay for wage increases. (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

The New Brunswick government says it will consider changes to binding arbitration long sought by municipalities to require consideration of a community's ability to pay for wage increases.

Municipal police and fire service unions are barred from striking in the province. When negotiations fail, arbitration is used to reach a new collective agreement. 

Municipal associations say the process leads to unsustainable salary increases and want the Industrial Relations Act amended  to force arbitration boards to consider a municipality's ability to pay when dealing with fire and police contracts. 

"It puts a lot of stress on municipal finances when the economic realities of the communities are not considered," said Adam Lordon, mayor of Miramichi and president of the Cities of New Brunswick Association. "That creates an environment in the communities where choices have to be made, or there's competition for scarce resources."

A labour leader says unions would oppose a change to arbitration criteria.

"This would stack the deck against workers and favour employers," Danny Légère, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, said in an interview. 

Danny Légère, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, says the requested change to arbitration would 'stack the deck against workers and favour employers.' (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The province's commitment to consider reform was made as part of a report on Saint John's fiscal sustainability released Wednesday. The report says the province will meet with municipal and union representatives to develop a proposal for reform.

The report says Saint John firefighter wages increased 72 per cent over 15 years, while police wages went up 67 per cent. Inflation increased 27.5 per cent over the same time. 

Légère said the status quo with unrestricted binding arbitration is the only fair mechanism to deal with issues that can't be settled at the negotiating table. He said communities already have the ability to increase revenue to pay for essential services such as police and fire. 

CBC requested an interview with Trevor Holder, the minister of post-secondary education, training and labour. An interview was not provided. 

Trevor Holder, minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, says in a statement that the province wants to hear the results of consultations with unions before considering changes. (Radio-Canada)

A spokesperson sent an emailed statement attributed to Holder that said it's "paramount that the municipalities engage with stakeholders, including the unions that represent New Brunswick's police and firefighters. 

"Our government would need to review the information that comes from these discussions before contemplating any changes."

Those conversations have been happening between municipal governments and union locals, Lordon said. 

The previous Liberal government abandoned plans to implement changes to binding arbitration in 2016 amid labour opposition. 

'Trickle down effect'

Past arbitration decisions have established that an arbitration panel should consider awarding wage increases comparable to those for fire departments in communities of similar size and characteristics.

Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton are compared against each other, while a community like Riverview is compared to Dieppe or the Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department.

"What you see is that there is a trickle-down effect of comparing communities," Lordon said.

Contested decision

Dieppe, as outlined in a contested 2017 arbitration decision, is compared against Moncton and Riverview. 

The city's firefighter union sought annual increases of 3.25 per cent plus an additional 12 per cent to close a wage gap between its firefighters and those of the comparable municipalities.

Moncton and its firefighter union reached an agreement in 2016 that included increases of almost 12 per cent over four years. (CBC)

The city proposed a maximum increase of 2.75 per cent plus a "catch-up" increase of one per cent over five years. 

The three-person board ruled Dieppe firefighters would get a 2.97 per cent annual increase because that's what Moncton firefighters received. 

It also granted a "catch up" of 2.5 per cent in the first year, 1.5 per cent the second, and one per cent the third year.

The arbitration board member appointed to represent the city opposed the decision. 

'Disassociated from reality'

"This decision is essentially dissociated from reality by suggesting that these workers are not comparable to other municipal employees and must only compare themselves to their peers," Pierre Bertrand wrote in a dissent included in the board's written decision.

The city filed for a judicial review, alleging the board didn't reach its decision using procedural fairness. A trial judge agreed and quashed the arbitration award, which was upheld by the province's Court of Appeal in January. 

The sides remain in arbitration, according to a Dieppe spokesperson.

Agreements expiring

This year, collective agreements with firefighter unions in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John are set to expire, leading to a new round of negotiations. 

Moncton's last collective agreement reached in 2016 saw wage increases of 2.97 per cent annually for four years, similar to increases in Fredericton and Saint John. 

At the time, Moncton's former city manager told CBC the city felt it needed to grant the increase to avoid the risk of arbitration.

About the Author

Shane Magee

Reporter

Shane Magee is a Moncton-based reporter for CBC.

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