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Labour leaders appeal to Bowman over strained relationship

Letter alleges relations soured after hiring of city official

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>CUPE 500 president Gord Delbridge</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

CUPE 500 president Gord Delbridge

THE leaders of the four largest unions at city hall have taken an unusual step and appealed directly to Mayor Brian Bowman to restore labour peace.

The presidents of CUPE 500, the police, firefighters and transit unions signed the letter, alleging the number of labour issues sent to arbitration has skyrocketed since the city hired Robert Kirby as its labour relations manager in December 2016, increasing costs to both the unions and city hall.

The union leaders say repeatedly going to arbitration has been unproductive and unnecessarily damaging to relations — and the unions have been winning the majority of the cases.

“We are taking the unusual step of jointly writing you to request your assistance in tackling a major issue facing our relationship moving forward,” states the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press. “This year, despite having no more grievances than previous years, we have had significantly more issues referred to arbitration…. This isn’t a case of our members or leaders demanding more, or being less reasonable. Issues that used to be solved at the labour relations table are now being solved by arbitrators.”

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THE leaders of the four largest unions at city hall have taken an unusual step and appealed directly to Mayor Brian Bowman to restore labour peace.

The presidents of CUPE 500, the police, firefighters and transit unions signed the letter, alleging the number of labour issues sent to arbitration has skyrocketed since the city hired Robert Kirby as its labour relations manager in December 2016, increasing costs to both the unions and city hall.

The union leaders say repeatedly going to arbitration has been unproductive and unnecessarily damaging to relations — and the unions have been winning the majority of the cases.

"We are taking the unusual step of jointly writing you to request your assistance in tackling a major issue facing our relationship moving forward," states the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press. "This year, despite having no more grievances than previous years, we have had significantly more issues referred to arbitration…. This isn’t a case of our members or leaders demanding more, or being less reasonable. Issues that used to be solved at the labour relations table are now being solved by arbitrators."

The union presidents also allege that the hard tactics from the city’s labour relations division have had a negative impact on employees within that department, saying there’s been an almost complete turnover of staff in the past year.

"The City of Winnipeg’s corporate labour relations department is in chaos," the letter states. "Since the change in leadership at corporate labour relations, you have had a near 100-per-cent turnover rate in that department. There are career civil servants who are choosing to leave the City to escape a department in crisis."

The letter — signed by Gord Delbridge, CUPE 500 president; Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505; United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest; and Maurice Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association — asks for a meeting with the mayor to resolve the situation.

"We want to work with you," the union leaders state. "We have the same goals — a city that works for the families that live here. But working in a state of conflict isn’t a sustainable working relationship moving forward. We are requesting a meeting with you to discuss how we can rectify this relationship, and move forward in a productive and meaningful partnership to serve Winnipeg."

Bowman said he expects to meet individually with the four union leaders at some point, but added he was pleased with the outcome of bargaining last year with three of those unions — CUPE 500, police and firefighters.

"I’ll have discussions with some of the signatories as well as with our labour relations department to better understand (the issues), he said. "We’ll look at ways to keep the dialogue going with them and see how we can continue to improve relations with them.... We’ll see what we can do to try to address some of the concerns they’ve raised."

The letter, dated April 19, echoes concerns raised last year during bargaining by CUPE 500 and the police union. Both unions blamed Kirby for what they said were the city’s unreasonable demands. Talks with CUPE, the city’s largest union, deteriorated to the point where a strike seemed likely.

However, both CUPE 500 and the police association, along with the firefighters, eventually settled for long-term contracts that included wage freezes. Bowman later credited the unions with saving city hall $16 million in unspent salary costs in 2017.

In an opinion piece printed in a Canstar community newspaper in November, council’s finance chairman Coun. Scott Gillingham praised the work of Kirby and his bargaining team for securing wage increases with the three unions that were, on average, lower than what had been negotiated in the past.

Other unions are also at odds with city hall. The union that represents the 300 paramedics has been involved in a series of bitter disputes with Fire Paramedic Chief John Lane that included an arbitrator imposing a financial penalty of about $115,000 against the city because of Lane’s interactions with the paramedics. Their union, MGEU Local 911, is also involved in disputes over work clothing and are currently in negotiations.

Kirby’s hiring came out of the blue. He had spent the previous four years in senior positions with the RM of Wood Buffalo in Fort McMurray, Alta., including director of the departments of transit and public works, and manager of labour and employee relations.

Before that, he was in Halifax, where, according to his profile on LinkedIn, he operated limousine and janitorial services, acted as a labour relations consultant and had a brief stint with the Regional Municipality of Halifax as the supervisor of employee services.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin
Reporter

Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at 6:37 PM CDT: Full write through

April 26, 2018 at 12:01 PM: Headline changed.

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