A new deal for Winnipeg firefighters is poised to end the city’s controversial practice of paying a union leader’s salary.

A new deal for Winnipeg firefighters is poised to end the city’s controversial practice of paying a union leader’s salary.

The city has paid 60 per cent of United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest’s salary since 2014. Under the new deal, that would end May 1, 2022, pending final council approval.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Since January 2018, Mayor Brian Bowman has advocated for the salary arrangement to be scrapped as soon as possible.

"It just didn’t seem to me like something that I thought was appropriate. Having any union leader have their union leadership salary paid for by taxpayers to me didn’t make a lot of sense," Bowman said Monday, deeming the proposed change "long overdue."

Prior to 2014, the city paid Forrest’s entire salary.

City council voted to seek a new agreement to replace the salary deal in June 2018, which this proposal would finally achieve.

"Having any union leader have their union leadership salary paid for by taxpayers to me didn’t make a lot of sense." –Mayor Brian Bowman

Forrest declined comment Monday, stating he won’t speak to the matter under after council casts a final vote on the tentative agreement. In the past, he said the arrangement provided good value for taxpayers, since union leaders fight for minimum health and safety standards that protect workers and city services.

Under the new proposal, the union would begin covering its president’s entire salary next year. The city would then pay the amount it previously devoted to compensating Forrest into a new fund that helps firefighters attend residential addictions and mental health treatment programs. The addictions and mental health fund is currently slated to last until April 30, 2025.

Forrest’s total compensation for 2020 was $130,217, a figure that can include both salary and other benefits, such as overtime, sick pay, back pay and vacation pay, according to a public compensation disclosure report.

Bowman said he expects the city will not resume paying a portion of the union president’s salary.

"I’d be shocked if there was any future consideration to have that revisited in the future. It’s just so out of line with all of our other collective units... I think the dollars can go to better purposes," the mayor said.

The new contract, which would last until the end of 2023, would impose wage increases of two per cent on Dec. 31, 2021, 1.9 per cent on Dec. 31, 2022 and two per cent on Dec. 31, 2023.

Coun. Sherri Rollins, the chairperson of council’s protection committee, said the wage increases appear reasonable, as the city continues to cope with economic losses from COVID-19.

"I think that they are in line with other collective agreements in frontline services," said Rollins.

The new agreement is expected to cost the city about $9.4 million more by the end of 2023.

The changes would also add $104,500 of annual mental health supports, beginning next year, and replace cotton "station wear" (such as shirts and pants) with fire-resistant garments.

“I’d be shocked if there was any future consideration to have that revisited in the future. It’s just so out of line with all of our other collective units... I think the dollars can go to better purposes." –Mayor Brian Bowman

While the province approved a UFFW request to send the contract negotiations to an arbitrator in March, the city says the deal was negotiated through collective bargaining instead.

Bowman said that likely resulted in a more sustainable deal for the city.

"Binding arbitration usually doesn’t benefit taxpayers, in my mind. Historically, it’s more costly for taxpayers," he said.

A city official confirmed the shift back to the bargaining table was possible because both sides agreed to it. However, the report notes a dispute over cashing out sick leave benefits has not been resolved and could still eventually head to arbitration as a last resort.

The last UFFW contract expired on Dec. 31, 2020, while the UFFW ratified the new deal on Sept. 14, the city report notes.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

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Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.