Contract talks between Penticton and firefighters burn out

Wages prove to be stumbling block in five-year stalemate between City of Penticton and local firefighters' union.

Penticton firefighters Jan Lamarche-Ledoux and Carsten Von Dein apply water to the smouldering rubble during a fire downtown in 2012.

Penticton firefighters Jan Lamarche-Ledoux and Carsten Von Dein apply water to the smouldering rubble during a fire downtown in 2012.

It seems there isn’t much the local firefighters’ union and the City of Penticton can agree upon, except that wages are the stumbling block that has left the firefighters without a contract since 2009.

The two sides recently applied for arbitration to settle the long-running contract dispute, having exhausted other options, including mediation.

“We have never had to go to arbitration before, we have always come to a mutual agreement,” said Mike Richards, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Penticton local.

Gillian Kenny, the city’s human resources manager, said stretching out the negotiations this long wasn’t by the city’s choice.

“We feel we have put forward fair proposals, however, clearly we can’t come to any agreement without going to arbitration and having someone assist us with that,” she said. “There was times where it just went back and forth about coming to the table. But we are very happy we got to the table and we feel that a positive resolution can be found by going to arbitration.”

Richards said the biggest difference between the two sides is that the firefighters want wage parity with their peers in other communities.

“We feel we should be paid the same as the other 98 per cent of firefighters in the province are and the city feels otherwise,” he said. “At this point, bargaining has ceased.”

Richards said morale among firefighters is low after being without a contract for so long, along with other actions taken by the city, like eliminating two positions by attrition during last year’s budgeting process. However, he said they remain dedicated to doing their job and other work in the community.

“The character of the firefighters themselves and our association is to always take the high road and do what we have trained to do,” he said.

“We don’t want more than anyone else has got. But for the municipality to recognize us as anything less than any other community recognizes their firefighters, it is definitely a shot in the gut,” said Richards.

A mediator was brought in in June, but was unable to help bridge the divide.

“He was gone by noon of the first day, there was just nothing he could do. He has written his report to the labour minister and we applied for arbitration.” said Richards

Kenny agreed the mediator was unable to help.

“The two sides are too far apart,” she said. “Ultimately it is disappointing to have to go to arbitration. I think both sides feel that way.”

While arbitration will settle the current dispute, Richards said that will just get them back to the bargaining table.

“As soon as there is an award, we are back to bargaining for 2012 and 13 and beyond,” said Richards. “I would love to be in a city like Delta or West Vancouver who sat down with their firefighters and said let’s look longer term and lets look at something for 10 years.”

In May, Delta firefighters signed a contract giving them a 20 per cent wage increase over  eight years, retroactive to 2012.  Arbitration also comes at a cost.

“Our members are looking at $1,000 to $1,500 a person, because we have been without a contract since 2009,” said Richards.

Kenny said the city would also be paying a share. The cost of the arbitration would be split between the city and the union, with each side paying their own legal fees. Kenny said that based on what she has seen with other bargaining units, the arbitration process may take a year or longer.

“It can be a very complex process and very time consuming,” she said, adding that the city is currently also in contract negotiations with their CUPE and IBEW locals.