Fredericton – As Fredericton’s firefighters and the City of Fredericton await a decision from an arbitrator on a longstanding labour dispute, Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside is publicly lambasting firefighters in the media for wanting too much money.
Arbitration hearings between the city and firefighters took more than 11 days, in contrast to two days in Moncton and one day in Saint John. The City brought in several expert witnesses to delay proceedings, including on issues of lesser contention, according to union officials.
At the heart of the dispute is the City’s proposal to move to a shared risk pension system, salaries and public safety.
Glenn Sullivan, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) local 1053 says that shifting to a shared risk pension plan is not necessary. “Our pension has been recovering quite nicely,” he argues.
Woodside and other city mayors have argued that arbitration awards are too much and are lobbying the province to change the way that arbitration proceedings are done; the mayors would like the arbitrator to choose a side rather than impose a settlement.
The dispute with firefighters has become a national issue, as Woodside has used his position as the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to draw attention to the cost of labour union contracts for cities.
Woodside told the Telegraph-Journal on Oct. 6th that if municipalities could not keep labour costs under control, they might be forced to cut their workforce.
The salary settlements at arbitration in Moncton (an increase of 16% over 4 years) and Saint John (12% over four years) are commensurate with annual increases in similar trades, according to figures from Statistics Canada.
Woodside has targeted labour costs as a way to reduce spending in city budgets while pouring money into capital projects over the last 10 years.
The $34 million convention centre and $11 million parking structure, the hallmark of Woodside’s mayoralty, have consistently operated below capacity since their opening in 2011.
The firefighters are asking for a wage package that would maintain comparability with other firefighters in Atlantic Canada.
The City of Fredericton has tried to cut its firefighter costs in other ways as well. In February, they decided to cut a tanker truck from their fleet and replace it with a rescue vehicle, which is staffed by only two firefighters, instead of three.
Firefighters responded publicly with a pamphlet informing Fredericton residents of the changes and were berated at a public council meeting by Mayor Woodside who dismissed their concerns about public safety.
“They made operational changes that would basically prevent them from having to hire more staff,” Glenn Sullivan says. The process, he argues, was driven by Lean Six Sigma, a management efficiency approach, rather than by an independent fire risk analysis.
The Mayor and firefighters have also clashed over the relocation of one of the Northside fire stations to Two Nations Crossing, which has facilitated further suburban development in an as yet incomplete part of the city. The move, say firefighters, have increased response times and is a public safety concern.
Rising costs for Canadian municipalities have been an issue for years, as high energy costs and aging suburban neighbourhoods require infrastructure renewal over sprawled city spaces.
While the City has yet to identify a way to reduce urban sprawl, it has taken aim at municipal workers. According to the City of Fredericton, firefighting service costs each household $41.35 on average. The cost of road and street maintenance is 60% more at an average of $65.03 per household.
Other cities, such as Calgary and Halifax have prioritized sprawl reduction as a means of reducing road maintenance costs as well as future capital costs. Calgary has instituted new suburban development costs to curb sprawl.
“I don’t think it is fair to blame firefighters for not being able to fund other things in the community,” Sullivan says. “Decisions about where to allocate funds are political decisions.”
Matthew Hayes is a sociology professor at St. Thomas University and Nikita Hartt is an English student at the University of New Brunswick interning with the NB Media Co-op.