In October, the Nelson Firefighters Association and labour negotiators from the city met for two days with an arbitrator. Nothing came of it. So they are going to meet again at an unspecified date.
Nelson’s firefighters have been without a union contract for six years, since 2011. Fire protection is officially an essential service, so fire fighters are not allowed to go on strike. If they reach a bargaining impasse with their employer, as they have in this case, an arbitrator must be called in to make a binding decision.
Nelson firefighters’ current expired contract, which gave them a 24.5 per cent increase over five years, was also decided by arbitration.
The Star called the city’s head negotiator, Kevin Cormack, and the firefighters’ representative, Marc Thibeau. Neither would comment on the arbitration process because it is still ongoing.
Fire fighter wages are a hot issue in municipal government circles across the province. City councils in smaller municipalities accuse unions of attempting to match wages paid by Vancouver — wages smaller cities can’t afford, they say. The union says a fire is a fire regardless of its location and that firefighters in B.C. are among the lowest paid in the country.
Last year the City of Nelson and other small municipalities took their concerns about fire fighter wages to the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) asking that the body lobby the government to change the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act to give arbitrators more flexibility to take smaller cities’ smaller budgets into account.
In a written response provided to the Star by Gary MacIsaac, the UBCM’s executire director, the ministry told the UBCM that it has no intention of changing the legislation. It said the law as it stands fulfills the purpose of avoiding strikes and lockouts. It said the relative rarity of arbitrated settlements underscores this success. And is stated that the Act is broad enough for arbirators to take local conditions into account if they wish.
The City of Nelson paid a total of $15,306,236 in wages and benefits last year, up 4.5 per cent from 2015. Employees of the fire department received 10.2 per cent of that. But that number will change as soon as the parties come up with a new agreement and the city writes lump sum paycheques retroactive to 2011.
Annual wages, not including benefits, for Nelson firefighters under that expired agreement range from a probationary firefighter at $53,592 to the assistant fire chief at $95,700 based on a 42-hour work week.