Labour negotiations: London firefighters go public with complaints about six-year (and counting) arbitration process

 (Free Press file photo)Smouldering for six years, frustrated London firefighters say their bid to get a new contract with the city has become the longest-running standoff in Canadian firefighting contract history.

Now, the stalemate has burst into the open with accusations by the firefighters’ association that city bureaucrats are sandbagging the contract arbitration process and dragging out the already drawn-out stalemate.

“I am at the end of the line here. I have no choice but to plead with the taxpayers,” Jason Timlick, president of the London Professional Fire Fighters Association, said Tuesday.

Contract arbitration between the city and the firefighters began in 2010 and has since become the longest and costliest contract dispute in Canadian firefighting history, said Timlick.

Arbitration is the process by which two sides that can’t agree in a contract dispute submit to a binding agreement reached with an arbitrator, a solution critics contend has pushed wage settlements for police and firefighters in Ontario — who cannot strike — beyond the ability of many municipalities to pay.

That’s because what an arbitrator decides in one case often influences what another will decide elsewhere.

In London, the two sides have held 39 meetings over the past six years and Timlick said the process has already cost the association about $1 million.

He estimates the city has spent double that amount, but the city isn’t releasing that information.

The association issued a statement on its website, hammering the city over the slow progress to reach a settlement and pointing out, for example, the city has invoked solicitor-client privilege in refusing to turn over some emails the arbitrator has ordered be produced — an argument the firefighters say the arbitrator has already rejected.

“The City of London is now adding months to an already protracted proceeding by seeking a court review of the arbitrator’s order,” the association said in its statement.

Both sides have dug in on the contentious issue of maintaining wage parity between police and firefighters, a standard the firefighters achieved 17 years ago.

“This is a standard that firefighters, long before I was on the job, fought for and attained and it’s something we are not willing to give up,” said Timlick.

The arbitration hearings were to resume this week, but all the meetings have been cancelled because of a legal fight over emails and correspondence related to a report supporting the city’s stance that firefighters should not be paid as much as police officers, said Timlick.

The association has asked to see the emails and correspondence, but city officials maintain the emails were deleted as part of a routine purge, he said.

Timlick said that violates a bylaw requiring the city to hang onto arbitration documents for 20 years.

An arbitrator has told the city to turn over the correspondence, but the city is challenging the arbitrator’s ruling in court, a development that will hold up further meetings for months.

Timlick said even with wage parity with police, London firefighters still make less than other comparable fire departments in Ontario. He also said his association has offered the city concessions that would save it millions of dollars.

Timlick said when he tries to speak to Mayor Matt Brown or city councillors, they refer him to city manager Art Zuidema and human resources director Veronica McAlea Major, who is heading the city’s negotiating team.

“I have no idea who is ultimately making the decision on their side. I have no idea what city staff are telling councillors,” Timlick said.

Brown declined to weigh in on the matter, citing the fact it’s before an arbitrator. He called the process “difficult conversations.”

Speaking late Tuesday, Zuidema confirmed much of Timlick’s account of the latest developments. On the matter of missing emails, he said only that the city is interested in “dealing with any outstanding issues at the bargaining table.”

Zuidema did confirm that city hall triggered a “judicial review” over the “appropriateness of the request” by firefighters for the emails and correspondence.

Timlick said it may take until 2019 before the arbitration panel finally makes a ruling, but the panel has a mandate only for the period covering 2010-2014.

“We will have to go back and bargain back to 2015,” he said.

The firefighters have been working under a contract that expired Dec. 31, 2010.

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Source: It’s Canada’s longest fire fight | The London Free Press