Police officers have tough, dangerous jobs, and they deserve to be paid more than most non-management employees at the City of Winnipeg. Their wages and benefits, however, are expanding beyond the city's ability to pay, a trend that must be halted.
A first-class constable earns more than $85,000 a year and can receive a full pension after 25 years' service. With overtime, many front-line officers are taking home more than $100,000, which makes them among the highest-paid workers in Manitoba, even though the only job requirements are a Grade 12 education, a clean record and good physical health.
This is not just a Winnipeg problem. Cities across Canada are reeling under soaring costs for police, firefighters and paramedics, yet their unions have shown no interest in scaling back demands for above-average wage increases, while city councils and provincial governments have magnified the problem by hiring more and more police officers in an effort to pander to the public's perceived sense of insecurity.
An arbitration board awarded police an 8.5 per cent wage increase in the last two-year contract, which expired at the end of last year. Police are looking for generous increases above the rate of inflation in their next contract.
Emergency services now account for 44 per cent of the city's $922-million operating budget and the number will rise in future years, forcing taxpayers to choose between higher taxes or reduced services in other areas. It's simply not sustainable.
The problem in Winnipeg and elsewhere is binding arbitration precludes the city from citing an inability to pay, a principle that only has meaning in the private sector. The city -- any government, for that matter -- cannot claim it must freeze wages because it hasn't sold enough widgets.
In setting police wage increases, arbitration boards consider local economic conditions, but they also rely heavily on comparative data from other Prairie cities, as well as wage settlements with other civic bargaining units. The general rule is police should receive increases above those of other city employees because their work is dangerous and unique. That means if CUPE negotiates a three per cent increase, police can expect more. The salaries of police in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon are considered, too, because there is no other local force that can be used for comparison purposes.
In 1982, police gave up the right to strike, while the city gave up the right to lock them out in return for binding arbitration, which attempts to replicate settlements that might be reached if both sides had not given up their rights to strike or lock out.
The problem with the current system is it relies on criteria that almost guarantee wages will always go up. If Edmonton gets too far ahead, Winnipeg will demand it catch up in a vicious upward cycle.
Provincial governments need to consider legislation that would change the rules of the game, not to punish police or reduce their income, but to ensure local economic conditions and the state of civic finances -- the ability to pay -- have more bearing in arbitration judgments.
A similar change in the rules of contract settlement should also be imposed for other government employees -- judges, nurses, teachers -- that also rely on comparative data to set wage levels.
Police salaries have been declining in the United States, while other countries are cutting police officers, but it's business as usual in Canada, which has some of the world's highest-paid police officers.
Police need to find new ways of doing their jobs, including measures such as single-officer patrol cars, because the old ways are no longer sustainable. Governments are preaching restraint and police must get in line, too, or risk the deterioration of the very communities they swear an oath to protect.