October 21, 2018

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Opinion

Watershed moment for Forrest

Now, it’s Alex Forrest’s move.

The head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg has been challenged by Mayor Brian Bowman to renegotiate his controversial salary deal.

Bowman this week revealed he has not formally signed the UFFW’s last contract, and will not until he gets some “guidance” from council on whether to force Forrest to renegotiate the terms of his salary.

For nearly two decades, Forrest has somehow been able to get city taxpayers to pay all or some of his salary while he serves as UFFW president. The deal is unique among civic bargaining groups, which normally reimburse the city for a full-time president’s salary while he or she serves the union.

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Now, it’s Alex Forrest’s move.

The head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg has been challenged by Mayor Brian Bowman to renegotiate his controversial salary deal.

Bowman this week revealed he has not formally signed the UFFW’s last contract, and will not until he gets some "guidance" from council on whether to force Forrest to renegotiate the terms of his salary.

For nearly two decades, Forrest has somehow been able to get city taxpayers to pay all or some of his salary while he serves as UFFW president. The deal is unique among civic bargaining groups, which normally reimburse the city for a full-time president’s salary while he or she serves the union.

Right now, the city is paying 60 per cent of Forrest’s salary, with the union picking up the remaining 40 per cent and providing a $34,000 premium. Before 2014, the city paid all of Forrest’s salary.

Bowman’s big move came this week, when he made a motion at executive policy committee to take the matter of Forrest’s salary deal before council to seek authority to renegotiate and bring it in line with the way other unions reimburse the city for salary costs. EPC unanimously approved the motion, which will now be considered by all of council at a meeting June 21.

Which brings us back to Forrest. Having been challenged publicly by the mayor to renegotiate his salary deal, what will Forrest do?

He could refuse and hold the city to an arrangement that will unfairly drain city coffers of hundreds of thousands of additional dollars by the time the UFFW’s contract expires in three years. Or, he could relent and give in to the mayor’s demands, which would qualify as a win for Bowman and a huge loss of face for the UFFW president.

For the time being, Forrest is keeping his options open. In a statement to the Free Press on Wednesday, Forrest made it clear he believes he is entitled to keep the salary deal currently in place until the UFFW contract expires. He also strongly suggested Bowman is not approaching the issue in a legally appropriate way.

Notwithstanding these concerns, Forrest claimed he was willing to be reasonable and yield to the will of council. "We have always said if the city believes they need to reopen any specific clause of the contract... we are always open to trying to figure a solution, as co-operation has been the hallmark of our positive labour management relationship for over a decade," Forrest’s statement read. "This relationship has resulted in three consecutive negotiated contracts that was (sic) mutually beneficial for the citizens of Winnipeg and the Untied Fire Fighters of Winnipeg."

There’s a lot to be read between the lines of that statement.

First, Forrest indicated the deal made to have taxpayers cover most of his salary is a "contract issue." In truth, that is not entirely clear.

As part of contract talks, the UFFW and the city signed a letter of understanding that opens the door to renegotiate the city portion of Forrest’s salary. In 2014, this letter of understanding resulted in an agreement negotiated outside normal contract talks to amend the salary deal, reducing the city’s portion of Forrest’s salary to 60 per cent from 100 per cent.

In 2017 contract talks, the union and city again signed a nearly identical letter of understanding to revisit the 60-40 split on Forrest’s pay. This time, however, no further renegotiation took place. Bowman is now arguing the lack of discussion last year opens the door now to revisit an issue that was historically negotiated outside collective bargaining.

The other statement made by Forrest that needs to carefully interpreted is his claim the past three contracts have been to the mutual benefit of firefighters and taxpayers. In actual fact, those three contracts — which allowed hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to be used to cover Forrest’s salary — were almost solely to the benefit of the union.

Next week’s vote will not only portray the mayor as accountable — even if it is late in coming — but also serve as a test of Forrest’s political influence.

Forrest has long boasted about how he can get things done at city hall. Council’s vote will show whether he has any remaining influence. The UFFW president will no doubt be lobbying his foremost supporters on council to stall Bowman’s bid to reopen talks on the salary deal. It will be important for those councillors to know everything they are getting when they support Forrest.

Since the terms of his salary deal became public, Forrest has struggled to justify his position.

Forrest claimed despite his lofty pay, he is among the lowest-paid union leaders in the city. He is, in fact, at the high end of that scale.

Forrest also suggested it was appropriate for taxpayers to pick up some or all of his salary because he represents the city on eight civic committees; a Free Press investigation showed he has an abominable attendance record for many of the committees he originally cited.

The Free Press also revealed the fact Forrest spends an inordinate amount of time outside Manitoba on "union business." Since 2014, he has taken advantage of more than 60 opportunities to travel outside the province, some of them related to roles he fills on international organizations.

Put it all together, and it’s hard to make an argument anyone other than Forrest has benefitted from his unique salary arrangement.

Councillors running for re-election this fall may want to consider how that will play on the campaign trail.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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