Frustrated by one size fits all fire arbitration awards - municipalities calling for reform and challenging results in the courts

AJAX, ON, Nov. 12, 2013 /CNW/ - Municipalities across Ontario continue to be frustrated with Interest Arbitration awards for firefighters and are calling on the government and opposition parties to commit to correcting the arbitration process through new legislation.

In addition to awarding precedent setting double-digit wage increases for firefighters, arbitrators are ordering what municipalities argue are costly and unsafe fire services changes such as the 24-hour shift model (firefighters work for a 24-hour period seven times in a 28 day cycle instead of the more traditional rotation of 10 hour day shifts and 14 hour night shifts over a greater number of days in the same 28 day cycle). As a result of these awards, fire associations press for arbitration rather than make the tough decisions and work towards negotiated settlements with their municipalities through collective bargaining.

Further, arbitrators appear ready to simply replicate decisions with a "one size fits all approach". The awards are often not grounded in local economic realities or circumstances and may even overstep authority by ruling on administrative policy which is the discretion of the municipality.

Municipal leaders recognize the risk and responsibilities of firefighters and continue to support appropriate compensation for the valuable services that these individuals provide to the community, but the question is, at what price? The reality is arbitration rulings are having a significant negative impact on the fiscal health of many municipalities and, at this point, it seems to be beyond the control of the municipalities.  

Reform is urgently needed through new legislation that gives priority to local circumstances and includes a modified set of specific criteria that arbitrators must evaluate when considering the fiscal health of a municipality. New legislation might also consider clearly defining areas of administrative matters that should be beyond the jurisdiction of an arbitrator. At the heart of this reform is the taxpayer and their ability to pay for the increased costs that are being levied against municipalities.

There have been many attempts to present new legislation, including a recent Private Members' Bill tabled in early 2013. However, they often stall due to the lack of support from all parties. It is time that the Legislature work together on arbitration reform for all taxpayers.

Quotes

"The Interest Arbitration process is fundamentally flawed as it is based on precedent with no priority given to local circumstances. Each time a fire association in Ontario is awarded a salary increase or benefit improvement there is a ripple effect across the entire province. Municipalities (small and large) are left picking up the pieces and footing unaffordable costs. We are now seeing what appears to be the start of a similar cycle with the 24-hour shift. In Ajax, we continue to disagree with an order to implement a 24-hour shift trial, and we are going to court to challenge the award. If implemented, we believe that this trial could have significant impacts on firefighter and public safety, scheduling, performance, and/or result in higher operational costs that will only burden the taxpayer more. Reform is needed to ensure a fair and balanced approach."

Mayor Steve Parish, Town of Ajax

"In Burlington, we continue to dispute the validity and appropriateness of a 24-hour shift for the firefighters for a variety of reasons.  Our case will be heard at Interest Arbitration in early December and we are hopeful that the arbitrator will look at the inappropriateness of this demand by the Fire Association and realize that this is simply not something that the taxpayers of our municipality should be saddled with, in terms of potential safety concerns, operational impact and financial cost.  Whatever decisions have been made with respect to this issue in other municipalities should not simply be imposed on our taxpayers without regard to the local picture which we believe is paramount."

Mayor Rick Goldring, City of Burlington

"In St. Catharines, we know the Fire Association is keen on a 24-hour shift.  The City has serious concerns regarding the appropriateness of such a shift based on health and safety, operational and economic reasons. With respect to fire services, it is within City Council's legislative authority to determine the appropriate service levels and staffing for the City. As a result, on January 21, 2012, a Resolution of Council was passed confirming that Council does not support the implementation of a 24-hour shift.  We want to be clear to the arbitrator hearing our case that this is not a choice."

Mayor Brian McMullan, City of St. Catharines

Additional Background

  • Recent salary settlements: Scugog fire fighters (27% increase over 4 years) and Stratford fire fighters (22% increase over 6 years).
  • At this time, only 1/3 of fire services in Ontario operate under a permanent or trial 24 hour shift. Several municipalities continue to dispute the issue and either continue to operate under regular shifts, are awaiting arbitration or are in negotiations.
  • The Town of Ajax judicial review will be heard by the Divisional Court on November 28, 2013.

SOURCE: Town of Ajax

For further information:

Media Contacts:

Christie McLardie, Town of Ajax, 905-619-2529, ext. 3362 or 905-999-8254 (c) 
Donna Kell, City of Burlington, 905-335-7600, ext. 7841 or 905-630-6263 (c) 
Mayor Brian McMullan, City of St. Catharines, 905-688-5601, ext. 1540 or 905-328-8907 (c)

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Town of Ajax

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City of Burlington

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