The City of Nelson and its fire department have a new labour contract after having been without one for six years. The terms of the agreement were decided by an arbitrator in April after the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
Fire fighters are designated by the province as an essential service and are not allowed to go on strike and employers may not lock them out, so intractable labour negotiations must be decided by an arbitrator who hears arguments from both sides, then makes a decision.
The new agreement gives the Nelson local of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) a 19.5 per cent wage increase introduced incrementally over the eight years from January 1, 2012, to December 31, 2019. That moves the base rate for a first class Nelson firefighter from $34.96 per hour under the old agreement to about $41.91 under the new one.
The agreement covers 10 full-time fire fighters, and does not include the fire chief or a number of auxiliary fire fighters who are not part of the union.
Nelson firefighters’ previous contract, which expired in 2011, was also decided by arbitration. The result was a 24.5 per cent increase over the five years starting in 2006.
The IAFF thinks they should, because fire fighters in Nelson do the same job as fire fighters elsewhere, and its negotiators presented that argument to the arbitrator, Robert Blasima.
The city argued that they should not, and that the arbitrator should follow the lead of the arbitrator in the previous contract and take into account a city’s local financial circumstances. The city cited an infrastructure deficit and a tax base that is more fragile than in other cities because it has no industrial tax base, leading to residents paying 73 per cent of total tax revenue, higher than most similar-sized cities. The city provided the arbitrator with statistical information on median employment income, median household income and social assistance demographics.
The arbitrator agreed with the city and gave an award that, according to Marc Thibault of the local IAFF, results in pay that is five per cent lower than the B.C. average.
“We are, so far as I know, the only department in BC that isn’t within one per cent of that average, including all the other career departments in the Kootenays,” Thibault wrote in an email to the Star.
Issues at play in the arbitration decision included the relationship between Nelson fire fighters’ wages and those of the Nelson Police Department and fire fighters in Cranbrook and Trail, as well as questions about the relevance of a recent fire fighter agreement in Fernie that gave their firefighters a pay rate higher than the Kootenay average.
Commenting on the decision, Nelson’s city manager Kevin Cormack, who was the head negotiator for the city, explained this week that Nelson is a anomaly when it comes to fire departments in small cities.
He said that smaller communities with paid fire departments “have either very few paid fire fighters, [such as] Salmon Arm, Revelstoke, or have an industrial tax base. We are a bit of a hybrid where we have had a professional fire department established when we had a large industrial tax base but now we don’t have this tax base.”
Whether the city needs or can afford a paid fire department of its current size is a question sometimes asked in Nelson.
Cormack argues in favour of a professional fire hall for Nelson because of the “high level of service including fire response, fire inspections, first responders, FireSmart and other programs, rescue services (including confined spaces), hazardous materials response, high angle rescue etc. Council has a desire to maintain this level of service especially in light of the number of heritage buildings we have, and the high risk of wildfire we have.”