January 18, 2018

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Opinion

Union president can't serve 2 masters

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The unconventional salary arrangement for United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest (right) is a cause for concern for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The unconventional salary arrangement for United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest (right) is a cause for concern for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg (UFFW) president Alex Forrest may want to consider an old proverb: “no one can serve two masters.”

Despite being on leave from his job with the city, the UFFW president gets 60 per cent of his $116,342 salary from the City of Winnipeg rather than union members.

This is an unusual arrangement. Normally when a union official takes leave from their regular duties at the city, the city stops paying and the union picks up the entire tab. The Canadian Union of Public Employees pays for all of its presidents’ salary and benefits, as does the Winnipeg Police Association and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union. It’s common sense: union presidents work for union members, so union members should pay for union presidents.

It’s also common sense that unions shouldn’t be forwarding taxpayers bills. Winnipeg taxpayers already pay nearly $106 million to firefighters in salaries and benefits. And for that money, they expect firefighters to be fighting fires. In this case, Forrest is no longer fighting fires, but instead running the union.

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The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg (UFFW) president Alex Forrest may want to consider an old proverb: "no one can serve two masters."

Despite being on leave from his job with the city, the UFFW president gets 60 per cent of his $116,342 salary from the City of Winnipeg rather than union members.

This is an unusual arrangement. Normally when a union official takes leave from their regular duties at the city, the city stops paying and the union picks up the entire tab. The Canadian Union of Public Employees pays for all of its presidents’ salary and benefits, as does the Winnipeg Police Association and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union. It’s common sense: union presidents work for union members, so union members should pay for union presidents.

It’s also common sense that unions shouldn’t be forwarding taxpayers bills. Winnipeg taxpayers already pay nearly $106 million to firefighters in salaries and benefits. And for that money, they expect firefighters to be fighting fires. In this case, Forrest is no longer fighting fires, but instead running the union.

Perhaps there’s some explanation.

Forrest told the Winnipeg Free Press that part of the reason for the arrangement is that he’d been sitting on "so many committees" that the city was paying him anyway.

The faithful Free Press asked the city about those many committees.

"Currently, Alex Forrest does not perform any work on behalf of the City of Winnipeg and does not represent the City of Winnipeg on any committee, civic or otherwise," said Michelle Finley, the city’s communications officer.

Forrest speculated that there may be a misunderstanding about which committees created the need for this compensation. It’s a nearly $70,000 misunderstanding every year.

Interestingly, this situation isn’t new. Until 2014, taxpayers were on the hook for 100 per cent of compensation. So, in 2014, the city and firefighters apparently agreed that this was wrong, but only fixed 40 per cent of the problem.

That failure to fully fix the problem has left Forrest with two masters. And that raises an inevitable question: who does Alex Forrest work for?

Presumably Forrest is devoted to defending the interests of Winnipeg firefighters. But he gets more money from city management than from union members. That may weigh on the minds of union members.

Consider the converse: what if city officials negotiating contracts with the firefighters received 60 per cent of their paycheques from firefighters? Eyebrows would be raised to stratospheric heights.

This is obviously a bad situation that needs to be fixed. Unfortunately, an apparent epidemic of amnesia seems to have struck city hall and nobody remembers why this deal happened and nobody thought to mention it to council before it ratified the firefighters’ new contract just last year. What can be done?

"I do understand that there are agreements that have been made prior to my time that are binding agreements," Coun. Scott Gillingham said. "Once the terms of this agreement have ended, once Mr. Forrest is no longer the president, then certainly it would be my view that it be changed so that the city is compensated for the UFFW’s president."

So the city’s plan is to keep sending Forrest taxpayer money until he doesn’t want it any more.

There is, of course, another option: Forrest and the United Fire Fighters could do the right thing.

No one can serve two masters — and for his own sake, for the sake of his members and for the sake of taxpayers, Forrest should follow the lead of other union leaders and make it clear who he works for by sending the bill for his services to those he serves.

Todd MacKay is prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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