(London Free Press)

Imagine working without a contract for six years in a job that requires you to protect your fellow citizens, potentially at the cost of your life. And your pay’s been frozen for the past two years and likely for some time to come.

That is the real-life situation for London’s 375 firefighters, who have been without a collective agreement since 2010.

Virtually every city in Ontario pays their firefighters the same as police officers, but London city management says that must end. Arbitration rulings that have endorsed the practice of more than six decades be damned. London is prepared to use the courts to get its way, a move that could prolong the dispute between the city and its firefighters for another two years.

“The London situation is definitely unique,” says Rob Hyndman, president of the 11,000-member Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association. “There seems to be some ideology going on here. They (city management) seem to be attempting to break the union.”

Hyndman says 85 per cent of Ontario’s 82 municipalities with professional firefighters pay them the same as police officers, and some actually pay a bit more. But none of them is waging the same war as London. He says it is the longest such arbitration in Canada.

City manager Art Zuidema insists lengthier arbitrations occurred in Timmins and Windsor. And, he says, the City of London does not believe police and firefighters do similar work.

To be fair, Zuidema inherited the situation, coming to London in mid-2012, but during his watch he has been accused of indifference toward police and city workers.

Under the old contract, a first-class firefighter was paid $85,503 after four years’ service.

“This is about the sustainability of fire services in the City of London,” Zuidema argues.

He rejects the union-busting assertion. London and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, he says, view the provincial arbitration system as “broken.” City firefighters, he notes, received an “interim wage award” of one per cent in 2011 and 1.9 per cent in each of the next two years, pending a decision of the arbitrator. Since then their pay has been frozen pending another contract — which could take yet more time.

It didn’t have to be this way.

“It’s a textbook example of what senior leadership should not be doing,” insists Dave Hodgins, London’s fire chief from 1998 to 2004 and now retired in Esquimalt, B.C. after a 35-year career in fire and emergency services in four provinces.

“I am not shocked because I sensed when I was still there the attitude from some senior managers that this was coming,” he says. “I am absolutely saddened by it and disappointed. It’s unprecedented. It’s not healthy in terms of trying to continue what was a very positive relationship.”

Hodgins says some managers still in their posts in London today viewed collective agreements as “the bad old union’s collective agreement,” rather than as “our” agreement, a partnership, reflecting an adversarial attitude.

He says firefighter morale suffers when frontline fire-suppression staff are called upon “to dig deep and bring passion to the response . . . (but) when you have this black cloud hanging over you, you think your work is not appreciated.”

Jason Timlick, president of the London Professional Fire Fighters Association, estimates the arbitration process aimed at resolving the contract for 2011 to 2014 has cost his association $1.1 million to date and millions more for the city.

“They are trying to set a precedent,” he says of city negotiators determined to pay his members less than police. So far, arbitration has taken 39 days and two more days have been set for January. After that, it appears the next available dates are late in 2017 and early 2018.

“It would take a miracle,” Timlick says of any prospect of reaching a deal under current circumstances. The city has refused to surrender to the arbitrator documents relating to an outside expert who challenged fire-police parity and has also threatened legal action.

Timlick was stymied when he tried to address a city council committee to explain the situation, concerned elected officials weren’t getting accurate information from city administration.

And so the dispute drags on. A big chunk of money will be needed to cover retroactive pay whenever this is finally resolved.

Sadly, it didn’t have to be this way.

Chip Martin is a retired London Free Press reporter and author of books on crime and baseball. martin.chip50@gmail.com

Source: Dispute with firefighters could’ve been avoided | The London Free Press