Mayor playing with fire

By Paul Moist,

Throughout 2018 there has been intense media scrutiny directed at Alex Forrest, the President of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg (UFFW).
While this story continues to unfold, we do know its most important facts.
We know that in collective bargaining in 2014, the Firefighters and the City agreed to an arrangement whereby the City paid for sixty per cent of Forrest’s salary and benefits while he served as full-time UFFW President.
We know that in 2017 bargaining, the parties renewed this arrangement.
Such arrangements while not the norm in the public sector, aren’t unprecedented, though they are far more prevalent in the private sector. For example in the manufacturing sector (i.e. auto and steel) it is quite common for plant chairpersons (the equivalent of a local union president) to be an employer-paid, full-time ‘book off’.
The bottom line is such provisions are bargained, and we live in a society that respects legal contracts.
The concerted focus on Alex Forrest has gone beyond public interest reporting.
At one point a Winnipeg Free Press editorial encouraged Firefighters to abandon Forrest and elect a new President. Forrest was subsequently acclaimed back into the office he has held for 21 years.
The Mayor has been quoted as saying he does not remember seeing the details of the paid leave provision when he voted on the last collective agreement in 2017. That statement does not speak to the legality of the clause, rather it serves as an admission that sometimes Council does not know what it is voting on.
Some have argued recently that the ball, so to speak, is in Forrest’s court now that Mayor Bowman is seeking support from City Council to direct the civic administration to attempt to re-open talks on this matter with the union.
It is not clear what such talks would accomplish. The parties here have a binding collective agreement that runs to 2020. They could agree to enter into talks now, but meaningful discussion can’t occur until 2020 when the current agreement expires. So what the heck is going on? I believe there are three key features to this story.
First, the City entered into a collective agreement with the Firefighters. Arbitration was not required, the parties showed give and take and came up with a deal that both ratified.
No amount of media coverage will change the fact that a collective agreement exists between the parties, one they freely entered into. This agreement serves the citizens of our City well in terms of codifying the work rules of this most important public service.
Second, the media – specifically The Free Press – believes that the public interest is being served by shining a continued light on Alex Forrest. One wonders if what is really at play is a concerted attack on a high profile labour leader, one believed by some to be vulnerable and therefore an easy target.
Alex Forrest is known to be both a dedicated Firefighter and trade union activist. His work in securing legislation to protect Firefighters from the dangers of work-related disease was groundbreaking and led the way in North America. Rather than being singled out and attacked, Mr. Forrest should be commended for his advocacy around this legislation, which has no doubt saved lives.
Lastly, and sadly, we now witness Mayor Brian Bowman attempting to forge a labour relations strategy through the media and through a symbolic motion on the floor of City Council.
This is new. Up until now the City has conducted labour relations through private discussions with the administration and with in-camera briefings of Council. Mr. Bowman wants to be seen to be doing something, and his latest move is more about his re-election bid than anything else.
This is an aggressive and ill-conceived move, one that could have a negative impact upon labour relations with all civic employees.
Public sector union-management relations sometimes become heated and end up in the media. The current matter of Mr. Forrest’s paid leave arose out of collective bargaining and will in all likelihood get resolved through that very process, in 2020.

Paul Moist is a retired labour leader. He worked for the City between 1975 and 2015. He is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.