June 19, 2018

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Mayor's signature on hold

Bowman won't sign collective agreement until council gives guidance on firefighter union leader's salary

A newly discovered clause may give Mayor Brian Bowman a way to snuff out United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg President Alex Forrest’s controversial salary deal.

Bowman will present a motion at Wednesday’s executive policy committee seeking a council vote on the future of the unusual arrangement that’s seen taxpayers on the hook for Forrest’s salary during his 21-year stint as union president. That’s the first step on a narrow pathway that could give the city an out on the deal prior to the next round of collective bargaining in 2021.

The Free Press has learned Bowman has yet to sign the city’s latest collective bargaining agreement with the union, which was voted on and ratified by council in April 2017. The mayor contends that, combined with a newly discovered clause in the contract, gives him the mandate to seek renegotiation of Forrest’s contract pending council support.

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A newly discovered clause may give Mayor Brian Bowman a way to snuff out United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg President Alex Forrest’s controversial salary deal.

Bowman will present a motion at Wednesday’s executive policy committee seeking a council vote on the future of the unusual arrangement that’s seen taxpayers on the hook for Forrest’s salary during his 21-year stint as union president. That’s the first step on a narrow pathway that could give the city an out on the deal prior to the next round of collective bargaining in 2021.

The Free Press has learned Bowman has yet to sign the city’s latest collective bargaining agreement with the union, which was voted on and ratified by council in April 2017. The mayor contends that, combined with a newly discovered clause in the contract, gives him the mandate to seek renegotiation of Forrest’s contract pending council support.

Bowman announced his intention to introduce the motion at EPC in an email to council Tuesday afternoon.

"As all of you know, the City of Winnipeg negotiated a new collective agreement with the UFFW, which was ratified and unanimously supported by council at the April 2017 council meeting. As mayor, that agreement has come forward for my signature. In preparation to sign the agreement, I have taken time to review the document," Bowman wrote.

"In the course of my review, I’ve noticed the material presented to council in April 2017 did not identify the existence of an updated Letter of Understanding No. 20 — Union President Leave, which commits each party anew to come to an agreement regarding the union president’s leave and reimbursement of costs to taxpayers."

A copy of the updated Letter of Understanding No. 20 obtained by the Free Press shows Forrest signed the document on April 26, 2017. Bowman believes the newly discovered clause gives the city a legal basis to seek renegotiation before he signs his name to the document, a spokesman for the mayor said.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Alex Forrest is head of the local United Firefighter’s Winnipeg Union.</p>

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press

Alex Forrest is head of the local United Firefighter’s Winnipeg Union.

In his email to council, Bowman made clear he’s not seeking to hold the contract hostage, but rather he believes the language laid out in the contract gives the city a potential out on the controversial deal.

"As such, I am not prepared to sign the agreement until council has not only reviewed the Letter of Understanding No. 20, but is also given an opportunity to provide direction to the public service on its implementation," Bowman wrote.

"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 in a text message to the Free Press Tuesday, when informed of Bowman’s impending motion.

However, Forrest has previously said that while he’s open to renegotiating his salary deal, he isn’t willing to do so prior to the next round of collective bargaining in 2021.

The union head has been under fire since January when it was revealed the city had been paying 100 per cent of his salary, plus benefits and pension payments, without reimbursement from the union, since he became UFFW president in 1997.

Mayor Brian Bowman’s signature is the only one missing from the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.</p>

Mayor Brian Bowman’s signature is the only one missing from the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

Other civic unions in Winnipeg reimburse the city for the cost of their union presidents salaries. It remains unclear why Forrest is an exception to this practice, with city administration unable to find a paper trail explaining why — or when — it was agreed taxpayers would foot the bill for the firefighter union leader. Forrest later admitted he also collects a second paycheque – a top-up equal to the partial wage of a city firefighter – from his union.

In January 2014, during a round of collective bargaining, city negotiators sought to have that deal re-worked. On Jan. 27 that year, Forrest signed a clause in the collective bargaining agreement – known as Letter of Understanding No. 20 – which said a new salary deal would be struck at a future date.

On March 4, 2014, the new deal was finalized, with the city agreeing to pay 60 per cent of Forrest’s salary for however long he remained union president. That agreement was signed by Forrest and Michael Bereziak, the city’s former manager of labour relations and total compensation.

During the last round of collective bargaining an updated Letter of Understanding No. 20 was included in the contract, stipulating once again that the city and union would come to an agreement on Forrest’s salary.

The 2014  letter of agreement between the city and the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

The 2014 letter of agreement between the city and the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

It appears Bowman believes the updated letter of understanding supersedes the 2014 agreement stipulating the city would pay 60 per cent of Forrest’s salary for however long he remained union president. The mayor’s motion to seek renegotiation before 2021 hinges on that interpretation of the newly discovered clause.

"The updated Letter of Understanding No. 20, as fully executed by the current president of the UFFW, presents an opportunity for the public service and the UFFW to arrive at an agreement representing a better deal for taxpayers," Bowman wrote.

If the motion is approved by the executive policy committee Wednesday, it will then go up for a second vote at the June 21 council meeting. Should council vote in favour of Bowman’s motion, city negotiators will have a mandate to try and get taxpayers off the hook for Forrest’s salary once and for all. 

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

 

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