Arbitration board to decide city labour dispute

By Bernice Pontanilla

Ever since amalgamation, the City of Ottawa and the Canadian Union of Public Employees seem locked in an endless labour relations bout, with both sides hoping to score points with the ringside judges.

CUPE Local 503 represents about 6,000 city employees. When negotiations, including conciliation, failed last spring, both parties moved to arbitration.

So where are they now?

The two sides struggled to even agree on a starting point. The city wanted to start from scratch and negotiate a whole new agreement. The union wanted a contract based on the old agreements Local 503 had with the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton and with the former City of Ottawa.

City labour relations director Sheelagh Taylor says the two sides reached a compromise.

“We’ve got beyond it,” says Taylor. “What we did for expediency was base it on the former (RMOC) region’s collective agreement,” but the city is not limited to that agreement.

But CUPE Local 503 president Jim Robillard says the compromise refers only to the contract’s structure, not its substance.

“Since day one it’s been war,” says Robillard. “Labour relations don’t exist with the new City of Ottawa.”

For the union, starting from scratch was impossible. Robillard says the majority of members had been covered by contracts with the Region and the former City of Ottawa before amalgamation.

The issue of wage harmonization (equal pay for employees doing the same work) is a major dilemma. Some employees are currently working side-by-side earning different pay, sometimes in the thousands.

Any settlement could cut into the city’s savings and increase property taxes, which Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli promised would not increase.

The city’s worst-case and most costly scenario would be “putting everybody to the highest [wage],” though Taylor adds,

the chances of that happening are nil.

“We can’t afford it,” says Bell-South Nepean Coun. Jan Harder. “[Employees] shouldn’t see it as ‘the gravy train pulled up to the station and I was lucky enough to get on board.’”

“It shouldn’t be opportunistic for the employee if it’s not for the taxpayer,” Harder adds.

Kanata Coun. Alex Munter says although it’s too early to tell what the arbitration’s outcome will be, there is a budget for some form of wage harmonization.

“We don’t have a choice,” says Munter. “It’s a cost – it’s part of the mix.”

Adds Taylor: “There’s clearly going to be a cost to harmonization and yes, the city budgeted. But what that cost is, I’m not prepared to divulge.”

Robillard likens the wage harmonization dilemma to the “the tail wagging the dog.” Only about 25 per cent of the local’s members’ wages will be harmonized. He sees job security,

contracting out, promotion, layoffs and recall as much more important than harmonization.

“If any of those happen, we’ll come out ahead,” says Robillard

Though Taylor admits the best-case scenario for the city, in terms of dollars and cents, would be harmonization to the lowest wages, this won’t happen either because “you’d have a lot of very unhappy employees.”

“Somewhere in the middle is the most reasonable approach,” she says.

“This is my Bible,” says Robillard, his hand on CUPE’s old collective agreement with the RMOC. Though he realizes “you get a lot more flies with honey than with shit,” Robillard says his team will continue to petition the arbitration board for his members’ interests.

Lorne Carter, a CUPE Local 503 labour representative, says that while the union understands the city must save money, “the savings are not going to be on the back of the employees.”

It will be up to the three-member arbitration board to decide who delivers the most and hardest punches and whether there is a unanimous or split decision. The arbitration is scheduled to end next June.