December 10, 2019

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Mayor right to be irked with transit union

Opinion

It was an unusually aggressive position for Mayor Brian Bowman to take.

But it was necessary.

Bowman called out the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 this week. He accused it of not bargaining in good faith on behalf of city bus drivers. The mayor said after six months of fruitless contract talks, the two sides have reached an impasse.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman accused Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1505 leadership of being greedy and refusing to seriously bargain a new collective agreement.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman accused Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1505 leadership of being greedy and refusing to seriously bargain a new collective agreement.

Bowman took it a step further and warned Winnipeggers who rely on transit to find other modes of transportation, claiming bus drivers would likely go on strike in September. The ATU has denied it's planning strike action.

Both sides have since agreed to participate in mediation with the Manitoba Labour Board. But they remain far apart.

The mayor’s doomsday scenario wasn’t so much a prediction as it was a shot across the bow of a union that doesn’t seem to understand the financial situation the city is in.

Winnipeg taxpayers have for years been saddled with unsustainable labour cost increases at city hall, which have driven up property taxes, utility rates and other fees.

Winnipeg taxpayers have for years been saddled with unsustainable labour cost increases at city hall, which have driven up property taxes, utility rates and other fees.

The city’s salary and benefits expenditures – which include wage increases, new hires, pension costs, overtime, job classification changes and severance pay – have grown well beyond the combined rate of inflation and population growth.

Fortunately, that’s starting to change. For the first time in at least two decades, the city’s labour costs have been held below that threshold for the past two years.

The city has negotiated collective agreements in recent years that have slowed the growth of salary and benefits costs, including far more sustainable contracts with police, firefighters and CUPE Local 500 workers.

It doesn’t solve all of the city’s spending problems, but it’s a key part of putting the city on a more financially stable footing.

The alternative is to raise taxes and fees, which is a tough sell in a city where people are saddled with one of the highest tax burdens in the country.

Salary and benefits costs at city hall were $530.9 million in 2006. That grew 58 per cent to $836.9 million by 2016, an average annual increase of 4.6 per cent. That’s well above the combined rate of inflation and population growth of three per cent a year during that period.

By contrast, labour costs at city hall rose only 1.8 per cent last year, figures in the city’s 2018 annual report show. In 2017, it increased one per cent. That’s a substantial improvement compared with previous years. Even as recently as 2016 salary and benefits costs jumped 3.8 per cent.

Controlling labour costs at city hall can’t be a short-term endeavour. It has to continue in future years and it must apply to all bargaining units, including bus operators.

Controlling labour costs at city hall can’t be a short-term endeavour. It has to continue in future years and it must apply to all bargaining units, including bus operators.

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 voted 96.6 per cent against the city's final offer, said union president Aleem Chaudhary. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 voted 96.6 per cent against the city's final offer, said union president Aleem Chaudhary. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

All public-sector organizations in Manitoba face the same financial constraints. The Pallister government has mandated a two-year wage freeze for all public-sector employees who fall under provincial jurisdiction (which doesn’t apply to the City of Winnipeg). They have no choice. The province is still running a $360-million deficit.

Even Doctors Manitoba, which represents more that 3,000 doctors, just accepted a tentative four-year deal that includes two years of pay freezes.

But for some reason, the Transit union believes those fiscal realities don’t apply to its workers.

Nobody is asking bus drivers to take a pay cut. And while there may be reasonable requests by the ATU to increase spending in areas beyond wages – such as counselling services for operators – there are limits to how far the city can go.

City hall has addressed many of the safety issues demanded by the ATU, including new driver safety shields that will be installed on all buses. And there have been reasonable wage offers made to the ATU, which the union has rejected.

It should come as little surprise, then, that city negotiators and the mayor question the ATU’s commitment to reach a fair deal. The ATU seems more interested in union militancy than finding a middle ground that reflects city hall’s financial position.

That’s why a normally mild-mannered Bowman took the position he did this week. It was the right one.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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