LABOUR relations expert Julie Guard said the letter from the four union leaders took her by surprise, adding she believes it reveals a serious situation at city hall that a majority of Winnipeggers know nothing about.
“It’s a pretty extreme situation for the leaders of these unions to have to write to the mayor about this,” said Guard, a professor of history and labour relations at the University of Manitoba and coordinator of its labour studies program.
Guard said there might be a segment of the community that is pleased with the hard line taken by the city’s labour relations department, but she added there is price to pay if the situation is allowed to continue.
“There is a certain number of people who will applaud that (hard line) but I think it’s a strategic question,” Guard said.
“I think a lot of people would say, ‘right, we want to keep costs down but not at the price of public services, not at the price of seeing a whole bunch of public sector workers who are so unhappy that at any moment something’s going to happen and we’re going to have a massive strike on our hands.’”
City hall is disputing the dire situation of relations with its unions and denies the city has incurred steep financial costs or that there’s a high turnover in the department.
“It’s not totally surprising that unions with whom we bargain and negotiate might have a certain reaction when we bargain firmly,” said Michael Jack, city hall’s chief corporate services officer whose duties including overseeing the labour relations division.
“It’s not unheard of for someone on the other side of a negotiating table to take some issue with what’s happening. I don’t agree with their characterization of what’s going on with labour relations.”
Jack said his instructions to the labour relations division has been to achieve “harmonious” labour relations with the unions.
“From our perspective, we believe we are the party trying to be reasonable,” Jack said.
Jack said the unions’ claim that they are winning the majority of arbitration cases is false, adding the city’s win-loss record for the past year on disputes that go before an independent arbitrator has been consistent with that of previous years.
Aleem Chaudhary, president ATU Local 1505 which represents most Transit employees, said city hall needs to focus on providing services to citizens not fighting unnecessary battles with its unions.
“We know that when the City spends more taxpayer money on arbitration cases and disputes that those resources are diverted from the front line services,” Chaudhary said.
“We’re trying to work together to ensure that the resources we do have are used to deliver services that people depend on, not have them tied up in the boardroom.”
Gord Delbridge, president of CUPE 500, the city’s largest union with about 4,600 members employed in most civic departments, said he was unable to produce a tally of the financial penalties assessed to city hall through the arbitration process but would provide it later, adding there have been cases where the city was assessed penalties amounting to “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Delbridge insisted that staff turnover within the city’s labour relations division has been almost 100 per cent since the hiring of Robert Kirby as head of that division in December 2016, adding that there’s only one city staffer with more than two years experience remaining and those who’ve departed total anywhere from eight to 10 people.
Jack said he’s only aware of one staffer who retired and another who returned to the private sector as the only departures from the division in the past year.
– Aldo Santin