Talks between fire, police unions and municipalities go nowhere
'It's a legal swamp,' says police union committee member Mike Davidson
A special 15 member committee struck by Post Secondary Education, Training and Labour Minister Trevor Holder met just once in February and held a second, shorter meeting in late May before chair Rick Merrill called it off.
"The Fire and Police stakeholders wanted the consultation process to continue while Municipal stakeholders saw no value in continuing a discussion when both sides were firm in their position and no common ground existed," wrote Merrill in his report to Holder.
"The Parties were deemed to be at an impasse and advised that no additional meetings would be scheduled."
Fire and police unions are barred from going on strike. When negotiations toward a new collective agreement fail, a third-party arbitrator can be appointed to review material and come up with an agreement that is binding on both sides.
New Brunswick's municipalities have long chafed at the binding arbitration outcomes claiming they outstrip those of other public sector unions and do not take into consideration a community's ability to pay.
A March, 2020 report to Saint John Council said firefighter wages increased 59 percent over a 15 year period ending in 2019 while police wages jumped 55 percent over the same period.
Most of the increases over that period were achieved through collective bargaining and did not involve binding arbitration, but Miramichi Mayor Adam Lordon, who Chairs the Cities of New Brunswick group, says the threat of arbitration is often enough to force municipalities to settle at the bargaining table for agreements that are higher than they would like.
"The system, for us, is not working," said Lordon.
The cities group pushed for amendments to the province's Industrial Relations Act that would force arbitrators to take ability to pay into account.
In November, Holder introduced Bill 13, an amendment that, if approved by the legislature, would force arbitrators to take into account the 'relative economic health' of local governments, property tax characteristics, socio-economic characteristics, and the 'interests and welfare' of the community served.
CUPE representative Mike Davidson, who served on the committee as a representative for unionized police officers, said arbitrators often do take into account a municipality's financial situation when they make their decisions.
He says no one can tell him what the proposed amendments actually mean in the context of a collective agreement.
He says they appear designed to force disagreements into court.
"It's a legal swamp," said Davidson. "If an arbitrator doesn't give [the municipality] a decision that they like they will be able to appeal that the arbitrator didn't consider socio-economic conditions, even though nobody knows what it means."
Glenn Sullivan, who represented the Atlantic Provinces Professional Firefighters Association, wonders why arbitrators themselves were not included on the committee.
"They would have been a perspective with respect to the ability to pay and would have been able to provide a valuable input to the process, in my view," said Sullivan.
The proposed changes to the Act will now go on to the Legislature's Law Amendments Committee for hearings.
Holder said both the union groups and municipalities will have an opportunity to make presentations.
Definitions and further amendments, he says, could be made at that time.
"It's going to be a very open, transparent process before the legislature in an open session," said Holder.