New Brunswick

Saint John mayor cites COVID-19 crisis in attempt to spike labour deal

A motion by Saint John Mayor Don Darling that would have spiked a tentative contract deal with city outside workers has failed.

Don Darling presses for 'zero' increases for next four years

City of Saint John Outside Workers, members of CUPE Local 18 reached a tentative contract deal with the municipality on March 13. (CBC)

A motion by Saint John Mayor Don Darling that would have spiked a tentative contract deal with city outside workers has failed.

The tentative deal was reached March 13 with CUPE Local 18, representing 278 employees who work for Saint John Water, City Works, and the recreation department.

Darling cited the COVID-19 crisis in his motion, saying he would not support any collective agreements unless they include a wage freeze "at minimum."

"We have to look at our operations through the eyes of the taxpayer that just lost their income and can't pay their rent," said Darling who described the situation as an unprecedented economic crisis.

Had it been successful, the mayor's motion would have undermined the municipality's own negotiating team which had entered the contract talks in January with a wage escalation policy approved by council in the fall.

The policy limits salary increases to a level no greater than the rate of property tax assessment growth in the city, using a formula that averages growth over the past three years — 1.3 per cent.

CUPE Local 18 represents 278 employees who work for Saint John Water, City Works, and the recreation department. (CBC)

Councillors rejected Darling's motion in an 8-2 vote.

"To make this kind of blanket decision without knowing more information, I can't go in that direction," said Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary.

"I want to make sure we take a sound practical approach that is rooted in evidence," said Coun. David Hickey."

Coun, David Merrithew and Greg Norton supported the mayor's motion. 

The actual terms of the tentative deal with Local 18 have not been revealed.

A contract ratification vote by union members that had been scheduled for Monday was cancelled following the province's declaration of a state of emergency.

The two sides were to ratify the deal on the same day. 

Local 18 president Chris Patterson is saying little about Darling's move, which the mayor made public in an online blog Friday.

"We have a tentative deal," said Patterson. "There's a process to be followed and he [mayor Darling] needs to follow that process."

The proposed wage-freeze policy would have applied to all city employee groups for four years.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling, Coun. David Merrithew and senior city staff attended Monday's council meeting in person. Nine other councillors were asked to participate by phone. (City of Saint John.)

City manager John Collin told council the existing wage escalation policy and other measures recently approved by council give the municipality the tools it needs to deal with the problem without imposing the terms set out in the mayor's motion. 

Because of the COVID 19 crisis Mayor Darling, Coun. David Merrithew, and a handful of senior city staff were the only people present in the council chamber Monday.

Nine other councillors participated by phone.

Speaking after the meeting Darling said he was disappointed his motion did not pass. 

He said he believed it offered a "lot of latitude" and he would have been open to amending it to meet the concerns of some councillors.

Along with outside workers the city is attempting to reach agreements with both the police and fire departments. 

Salary and benefit costs for the city amount to about $82 million in 2020.

The city must also pay $9.5 million a year to make up for a deficit that was allowed to grow over many years prior to 2012 in its employee pension fund. 

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726


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