By Collin Gallant on January 11, 2019.
Two years after city administrators asked for a wage freeze from its unionized employees, city hall and the Medicine Hat Police Association have entered into binding arbitration to replace a long-expired contract.
The collective bargaining agreement between the city and its 110 officers and civilian employees in the department expired in late 2016. After a series of bargaining rounds over 18 months both sides sat down with a mediator last spring.
That’s moved to an arbitration process, of collective bargaining in the province, published this week by the Alberta Labour ministry.
Police Association president Stacey Kessler said his side wouldn’t comment on the status of talks or issues that remain unresolved.
“We want to respect the mediation and arbitration process, but clearly we haven’t been able to resolve the contract,” he said. “We were working with a mediator and now we’ve bandied that over to an arbitrator.”
Officials with the city’s finance department echoed that sentiment Thursday, but stated it in policy to not discuss ongoing negotiations.
“We remain interested and open to trying to find a mutually beneficial agreement with the association,” said corporate services commissioner Brian Mastel.
A wage freeze in 2017 was a key leg of the Financially Fit budget strategy that lays out cost containment among six strategies to tackle a revenue shortfall at the city caused by steep decline in natural gas dividends.
Four other unions agreed to no wage increase in the 2017 contract year, signing various deals that included raises in the following years of the 2 per cent range.
Three of those deals, with CUPE 46 (which represents inside, outside and transit workers) and the International brotherhood of Electrical Workers No. 254 (power line and power plant workers), expire at the end of 2019.
The other contract, with 78 members of the International Association of Firefighters, No. 263, expired Dec. 31 and needs to be renegotiated this year. It is common for bargaining units to continue work without a contract, and wage settlements are often retroactive.
The recently approved 2019-2022 budget plan doesn’t specifically call for wage freezes, but does in its preamble state that inflationary pressure, such as raising wages, is a key challenge.
In terms of dollar-compensation for police, a Medicine Hat constable earned $46.71 per hour in 2016 — the final year of the most recent contract.
That rate had them being paid about 75 cents less per hour that year compared to counterparts in Calgary and Edmonton, and on par with Lethbridge officers.
In two years since however, wages in other major centres have risen by more than $1 per hour in 2017, equal to about $2,000 per year per officer.
The City of Calgary’s contract with 2,000 officers expired before 2018. Edmonton officers will make $50.14 per hour in 2019 after its 1,900-member bargaining unit ratified a three-year deal last fall.
Also in December, municipal workers in Lethbridge and transit drivers in Red Deer also ratified four-year contracts including raises mostly under 2 per cent.
Private sector deals outpace public raises
New analysis by the ministry shows that over the past two years, unionized private sector workers have earned larger wage increases than unionized public sector workers, but that could be result of recent contracts for extremely large provincial bargaining units.
Last month the 16,000 members of the United Nurses of Alberta agreed to a two-year wage freeze, as did 22,000 government workers represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in September.
For the 2017 contract year, such private sector compensation rose by about 1 per cent, a quarter-point higher than government workers under union contracts.
For 2018, scheduled private sector raises average 1.35 per cent, about three times more than active public sector contracts. The calculation for a smaller number of contracts in place for 2019 shows more even figures.
Average weekly earnings for all workers in the province is expected to rise by 2.1 per cent in 2018 to sit at $1,144.
That figure rose 1 per cent rise in 2017 after losing 3.7 per cent in total over 2015 and 2016.
Alberta Labour said it expects the consumer price index to rise by 2.5 per cent for the whole of 2018.
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