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City has the right to unilaterally alter police pension, lawyer tells grievance hearing

The City of Winnipeg has the right to make unilateral changes to its police officers' pension plans.

Police unions seek millions in damages for 'reprehensible' city conduct

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Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin (left) listens as lawyer Keith LaBossiere tells an arbitrator it is asking for such damages because of the campaign to undermine its pension and union in the eyes of the public. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)
Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin (left) listens as lawyer Keith LaBossiere tells an arbitrator it is asking for such damages because of the campaign to undermine its pension and union in the eyes of the public. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 14/01/2020 7:00 PM

Winnipeg police officers are not only asking an arbitrator to overturn unilateral changes made by the city to their pension plan, they are also gunning for almost $3 million in damages.

Both the 1,400-strong Winnipeg Police Association, and the 34-member Winnipeg Police Senior Officers’ Association, are asking for damages of $2,000 per member and a total of $65,000 to be paid to the unions by city hall.

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That's what lawyer Ken Dolinsky told a grievance hearing Wednesday morning on behalf of the city. The pension plan is governed by a bylaw and city council has the right to change bylaws, he said.

"Council can make changes," he told arbitrator Michael Werier on the hearing's final day. "It doesn’t say the city must receive the union’s agreement before making changes. The right to make unilateral changes is part of the bylaw."

Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin disagrees.

"For the last 40 years of negotiations it has been clear the spirit and intent of the wording is it has to be by agreement, negotiation or arbitration," Sabourin said during a break.

"They know they can’t change it... maybe it is because the mayor is a lawyer he has come up with the idea of interpreting the wording in a different way."

The right to make changes to the police pension is part of a bylaw, says Ken Dolinsky (left), a lawyer for the city. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The right to make changes to the police pension is part of a bylaw, says Ken Dolinsky (left), a lawyer for the city. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

In November, city council unilaterally made changes to the pension plans of both the Winnipeg Police Association, which represents 1,400 officers, and the Winnipeg Police Senior Officers’ Association, which represents 34 inspectors, superintendents and six civilian members.

The city says it will save $12 million annually as a result of the changes, which include removing overtime as a pensionable benefit, altering provisions for early retirement and increasing contributions to the plan from union members.

The city has said it would use the savings for front-line policing and other civic programs.

Both unions filed grievances, leading to this week's hearing.

The unions say if the city follows through, the result will be more than three dozen senior officers will retire before the changes go into effect.

The unions are also asking the arbitrator to award them almost $3 million in damages — $2,000 for each police officer because of what they call a deliberate and sustained intent by Mayor Brian Bowman and civic administration to undermine the unions and their pensions without negotiations.

But lawyer Peter Mueller, who also represents the city, argued no damages should be considered because no harm has been done.

Peter Mueller (right), a lawyer representing the City of Winnipeg, says since the pension changes don't take place until April 1, the hearing is premature. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Peter Mueller (right), a lawyer representing the City of Winnipeg, says since the pension changes don't take place until April 1, the hearing is premature. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"(Pension changes go) into effect April 1. Nothing has happened yet," Mueller said.

"No breach, no damages."

But later, during rebuttal, both police association lawyer Keith LaBossiere and senior officers' lawyer Garth Smorang took issue with that argument, saying the city shouldn't get off the hook that easily.

"They must be told in the harshest possible terms that they cannot do this crap," LaBossiere said.

"The reality is they breached the agreement. They have passed a bylaw to breach the collective agreement... there are still damages."

Smorang agreed, adding, "You have to pay for these political decisions if you cause damage. There's no question damage has been done."

Werier said he hopes to have a decision before April 1.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 5:17 PM CST: full update

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