Firefighters: Contract battle with City of London further delayed by ‘level of mistrust’

cityhallCity hall has taken a “very rare step” by interrupting its years-long labour battle with London firefighters with a court fight, one expert says.

Though it may not be unprecedented, a University of Toronto scholar says he can’t recall a development akin to this one — legal wrangling that will further delay a six-year contract negotiation that’s already the longest in Canadian firefighting history.

“By and large, that’s a very rare step,” said Rafael Gomez, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources.

“The whole point of arbitration is to avoid the courts.”

At the core of the latest twist in a six-year saga between city hall and the London Professional Fire Fighters Association (LPFFA) is the union’s push for emails and correspondence related to a report on the city’s central demand: that wage parity between police and firefighters must end.

An arbitrator ordered the city to hand them over. But the city has responded by launching what top bureaucrat Art Zuidema calls a “judicial review” over “the appropriateness of the request.”

That’s ground the arbitration process to a halt, frustrating association leader Jason Timlick. He’s publicly calling on city council — which will make the final decision in contract talks — to meet with him.

Underlying the tug-of-war, Gomez figures, is “a level of mistrust.” And that seems like a fair assessment.

“We don’t know what’s in the documents” that went into making the end-parity report, Timlick said.

“The city’s withholding them so vehemently, there must be something in it.”

“It’ll help us understand how the conclusions were drawn,” Timlick said.

Attempts to interview city hall’s top bureaucrats — human resources boss Veronica McAlea Major, specifically — were unsuccessful Wednesday.

A first-class firefighter, after four years on the job, makes $85,503 based on 2010 wages (the last year they had a contract). They hope an arbitration award will raise that retroactively to $92,207 until 2014. And then there’s the following contract to hammer out.

The city is seeking a number of concessions, but ending fire-police parity is the biggest one from the union’s perspective. For Timlick, it’s not something he can give up.

But there’s the matter of public perception, too. Every year, the so-called “sunshine list” of city workers making $100,000-plus is published and filled with firefighters. Many, though, are only there due to overtime, a result of city hall’s decision to understaff the fire department as a cost-saving measure, firefighters say.

How much pay, however, is enough?

“$85,000 a year is great. It’s a fair question,” Timlick said. “But we’re not talking about increases that are exorbitant.

“When I look at the monument downtown and the men who died doing this job and brothers and sisters that fought to get the wage we have now, in principle, we can’t give (police parity) up.”

Zuidema said late Tuesday city officials “very much respect the work the firefighters do” but they are “committed to (the arbitration) process” that, he notes, the firefighters began.

For Gomez, the University of Toronto professor, a messy ­process is likely in situations like this.

“Ultimately, the best option is a better relationship between the city managers and the employees,” he said. “Once trust breaks down . . . it’s not going to be a clean outcome.”

pmaloney@postmedia.com

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Source: City sends firefighter dispute to court | The London Free Press