September 18th, 2021

Council ratifies police contract with 7-2 vote

By COLLIN GALLANT on April 17, 2019.

City council has ratified a new contract with Medicine Hat Police Association, but about half of council members are calling for changes to how binding arbitration works in public sector collective bargaining.

The long-awaited deal, presented at Monday’s meeting, was settled through negotiations by both sides.

But some council members said the possibility it could have gone to an arbitrator put management at a disadvantage and left the city paying more than it had hoped.

Others said the deal is fair, meets the city’s initial goals, and settles an outstanding matter at the best terms available after two years of intense talks.

The four-year deal, including a wage freeze in 2017, but a near 8 per cent cumulative raise by the second half of 2020, was approved by council with a 7-2 vote.

Couns. Kris Samraj and Phil Turnbull voted against accepting the agreement, with both men arguing that the spectre of paying more in a potential binding arbitration disadvantages cities.

“Collective bargaining is weighted heavily against smaller communities,” said Samraj, citing comparisons to larger cities used by labour professionals. “For me it’s a problem that we’re in vastly difference economies.”

Turnbull, who has often stressed local standard of living and increasing pressure on taxpayers should be a consideration, said the cost of city wages is a major factor in budgeting.

“We have no leverage here” at an arbitration board, said Turnbull, who said he supports the force and appreciates a wage freeze in 2017.

“We’ve got to get the province at the table to say ‘no one person (an arbitrator ruling on contract terms) can tell us what our budgets will look like.'”

Coun. Robert Dumanowski said the deal, which dates back to 2016, is “essentially a catchup that’s in alignment with what other city unions” have agreed.

“I’m proud of the police association for finding a middle ground,” he said. “It’s either this or we’d have gone to binding arbitration. It would have cost us a pile.”

Coun. Julie Friesen said the resulting wage increase is reasonable, even when compared with forces in other cities.

The deal itself covers four years, retroactive to the start of 2017, though there is no wage increase in the first year.

City managers sought a one-year wage freeze from all city unionized workers as part of its budget plan.

Raises follow at the start of 2018 (2.0 per cent), to start 2019 (2.5 per cent), at the end of 2019 (2 per cent) then at the mid-point of the final year (1.5 per cent) in July, 2020.

The cumulative effect is that at the end of the four-year deal, officers will make 8.25 per cent more than they did in late 2016.

The six municipal police forces in Alberta have different contract periods, making current comparisons difficult.

For the 2017 contract year, though, local police salary was $46.61 year hour. Over an average working year that rate provided $2,000 to $4,000 less than officers in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge, about the same as Camrose police and $2,000 more than bylaw officers in Taber and Lacombe.

Those forces comprise a list of comparisons that an arbitrator would have weighed when deciding wage issues.

Coun. Darren Hirsch also said that city should lobby “the new provincial government, quite frankly” to change how arbitration awards are determined.

When contract talks are stalled one or both sides can apply to the labour ministry to appoint an arbitration board to impose a settlement.

“Nobody wins with this,” said Mayor Ted Clugston, who voted in favour of the negotiated deal.

“The process is flawed, but we have a fantastic police force. That comes with a cost.”

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