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.
Lawyer Keith LaBossiere, who represents the WPA, told an arbitrator Tuesday it is asking for such damages because of the sustained campaign by the City of Winnipeg and Mayor Brian Bowman to undermine its pension and union in the eyes of the public.
"The city wanted members of the public against them," LaBossiere told arbitrator Michael Werier. "The only option is for these fat cat cops to give up their pension — that's the mayor's position... The conduct of the city has been reprehensible.
"(You) need to order meaningful damages so that the city doesn’t do this again."
City council approved changes to the police pension plan in a close 9-7 vote in November.
Bowman said after that meeting the police association's message was "one of a broken record: more money, more money, more money. We need to look at how we use the resources, taxpayer dollars, more efficiently to get better results."
The changes, which include removing overtime as a pensionable earning and changing early retirement provisions, shifting $12 million in annual costs from the city to individual police officers, take effect April 1.
But, before the moves were approved, the impacted unions launched a grievance, sparking this week’s hearing. About three dozen off-duty officers watched the hearing from the audience.
LaBossiere accused Bowman and senior civic administration of conducting its fight to unilaterally change the pension not through negotiation, but through the media.
"It was deliberate and provocative," he said. "They turned the members against the taxpayer... they were on a mission."
WPA president Moe Sabourin said during a break the current pension plan is sustainable, but the city's position has caused him to receive hundreds of phone calls and emails from angry and scared police officers and spouses.
Sabourin said until the city moved its planned changes from end of December 2019 to April 1, 2020, 40 officers had applied to retire. They have since revoked their requests.
"That’s probably six times higher than normal," he said.
Lawyer Garth Smorang, representing the senior officers’ association, which is made up of inspectors, superintendents and a handful of civilians, said its members have the same concerns, but with a key difference.
"My client members are the senior members and closer to retirement," Smorang said.
"With an average of 28.5 years of service, 80 per cent of them could retire with a full pension now... This is a calculated attempt by the city to say perhaps a police car doesn’t arrive because we are paying bloated pensions.
"There is clearly politics here."
Lawyers for the city will be putting forward their arguments Wednesday.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 10:23 AM CST: Corrects reference to superintendents