August 13, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press



City council to vote on firefighter union head's contentious pay deal

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/6/2018 (792 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mayor Brian Bowman’s plan to get taxpayers off the hook for Winnipeg firefighter union president Alex Forrest’s salary once and for all passed its first hurdle Wednesday.

The mayor’s executive police committee unanimously supported his motion seeking a council vote on the future of the controversial deal that’s seen taxpayers pick up the tab for Forrest’s salary during his 21-year stint as president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. The matter will now go for a vote at the next council meeting on June 21.

The path to renegotiation

Click to Expand
  • Mayor Brian Bowman proposes a motion at Wednesday’s executive policy committee meeting. It passes unanimously.
  • On June 21, the motion will go before council for a vote. If the motion passes, it gives city negotiators a mandate to try and hash out a new deal on union reimbursement for Forrest’s salary.
  • Once council provides its mandate to city negotiators, Bowman said he will sign the collective bargaining agreement, officially executing it.
  • City negotiators will then approach the UFFW to see if the union is open to sitting down and discussing possible changes to Forrest’s controversial salary arrangement.
  • Within 30 days of the start of negotiations a status report will be provided to council.

"I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. My hope is that council, which will now have a say as a result of the vote this morning at EPC, that council will support the motion. It will direct the public service to seek 100 per cent reimbursement by the UFFW, as is consistent with every other union that we bargain with," Bowman told reporters Wednesday.

The plan to seek an out on Forrest’s unusual salary arrangement hinges on Bowman’s interpretation of a newly discovered clause in the collective agreement. The mayor said he discovered the clause while reviewing the agreement — which was unanimously approved and ratified by council in April 2017 — this spring.

On Tuesday, the Free Press revealed Bowman had yet to sign the document, despite council having voted on it more than a year ago.

Bowman claims the clause – referred to as the "updated Letter of Understanding No. 20" and signed by Forrest in April 2017 – requires the two parties reach a new deal on the union head’s salary.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman


Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

In a written statement to the Free Press, Forrest indicated he disagreed with the Mayor’s interpretation of the newly discovered clause. He highlighted that his March 2014 deal made clear the city would pay 60 per cent of his salary for however long he remained UFFW president.

"We have an agreement on my salary and it is very clear that it remains in full effect and force until I retire as United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president. We are also governed under the Manitoba Fire Departments Arbitration Act and there are specific rules in how contractual clauses and agreements can be changed," Forrest wrote.

However, Forrest then went on to leave the door open to a possible renegotiation of his salary prior to the next round of collective bargaining in 2021. In past statements to the Free Press, he indicated he wouldn’t consider doing so before then.

"We have always said if the city believes they need to re-open any specific clause of the contract due to concerns we are always open to trying to figure a solution," Forrest wrote.

Alan Levy, an associate professor at Brandon University and a labour relations expert, said Bowman needs to be careful in how his administration chooses to move forward on this. In particular, he said a long, costly arbitration needs to be avoided.

"The issue here is what the understanding was at the bargaining table. The individual chief negotiators will know the answer to that question. That’s the crux of this. The mayor has to be careful the union doesn’t say, ‘Hey, that’s dirty pool,’" Levy said.

"To come out more than a year later and say, ‘We didn’t hash out this salary deal’ could lead to accusations of bad faith bargaining. Forrest could say, ‘Our understanding is this just carried over from (the 2014 agreement), and he may – may is the key word here – have a very good argument."

Winnipeg firefighter union president Alex Forrest


Winnipeg firefighter union president Alex Forrest

In addition, Levy said it’s important to weigh the benefits of recouping the costs for Forrest’s salary going forward against the long-term negative effects this could have on the city’s relationship with the UFFW.

"From a political point of view the mayor is late to the game. This is becoming a political football. But there’s also an issue with trust. You want the union to trust you. Not just this union, but all the unions in the city. They may come back and say, ‘Well, it looks like the city speaks out of two sides of their mouth.’ And that becomes very detrimental to long-term relationships," Levy said.

Forrest’s past and current statements on renegotiation

While being questioned about the city’s handling of the controversial deal during a Jan. 17 press conference, Mayor Brian Bowman indicates he’s spoken to Forrest about renegotiating the agreement.

While being questioned about the city’s handling of the controversial deal during a Jan. 17 press conference, Mayor Brian Bowman indicates he’s spoken to Forrest about renegotiating the agreement.

“As of today, what I can tell you is the president of the UFFW has indicated he’d be open to having it negotiated in the next round of collective bargaining (in 2021),” Bowman told reporters.

Forrest later confirms that to the Free Press, saying the March 2014 salary deal was negotiated in “good faith,” but he’d be willing to revisit the matter during the next round of collective bargaining.

On June 12 and 13, however, in written statements to the Free Press, Forrest twice seems to change his tune, leaving the door open to a possible renegotiation before 2021.

“We have always said if the city believes they need to re-open any specific clause of the contract due to concerns we are always open to trying to figure a solution, as cooperation has been the hallmark of our positive labour management relationship for over a decade,” Forrest wrote.

Should council approve the motion on June 21, city negotiators will then have a mandate to approach the UFFW to sit back down at the negotiating table and see if the union is willing to hash out a new deal for Forrest’s salary.

Bowman said he reached out to Forrest before Wednesday to let the union president know about his plan to present the motion to EPC.

"I just wanted to let him know, as a courtesy, that I would be introducing the motion. I’m hopeful we can start fresh and we can get a better deal. Obviously the UFFW may take a contrary position and that can be discussed at the bargaining table," Bowman said.

"I’m of the opinion council members should have a say in what the approach is on the city’s side of the bargaining table. My hope is 100 per cent reimbursement can be sought. Now it’s up to council."

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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