By Ezra Black
Labour negotiations between 60 unionized workers and the City of Fernie have stalled because the two sides disagree on who should legislate employees’ work schedules.
On Nov. 9, the city’s unionized workers, which are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2093, moved a step closer to taking labour action with 98 per cent of 50 members voting in favour of a strike if a new agreement cannot be reached.
The union represents employees at city hall, Fernie Memorial Arena, Aquatic Centre and the Public Works Department.
The vote came after the union rejected the City of Fernie’s latest contract offer, which urged members to accept the deal or prepare for a lengthy strike, said CUPE national representative Keith Nielson.
“We took that as a threat,” he said.
The vote puts the union in a legal position to strike provided it gives the city 72 hours notice.
“We’re not at that point yet,” said Nielson. “We’re not withdrawing our service at all and everything should run along the way it is but if we don’t get back to the bargaining table or if we have a mediator come in and we don’t get a deal, the bargaining committee is going to look at all their options before withdrawing services.”
Nielson said the main disagreement pertains to employee work schedules.
Right now, an employee’s shifts can be changed as long as there is mutual agreement between the union and the city.
But the city is suggesting cutting out the union and allowing a workers’ schedule to be decided between the employee and his or her supervisor.
Nielson said the change could allow the city to circumvent normal hiring practices. It could also allow the city to compel its employees into working longer or irregular hours.
“We see this as an opportunity for this employer to intimidate these employees. It also gives the opportunity for the employer to circumvent the collective agreement by shifting people down into positions that are supposed to be posted and then filled,” said Nielson. “This employer has violated the collective agreement in the past by doing those things. Now they want to change it so they can just go ahead and do this and we’re not having that.”
The union and employee rarely turn down a shift change request from the city, noted Nielson.
“Probably nine times out of ten when the employer has requested to shift somebody’s schedule the union has agreed,” he said.
The two sides have been negotiating a contract since the last collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of February 2015.
Negations stalled in June after the city’s former Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Jim Hendricks resigned his position.
Then the city hired Jay Sharun, a labour negotiator with Western Industrial Relations, which is a labour relations consulting firm in Western Canada.
According to the Saskatchewan Association of Human Resource Professionals, Sharun has negotiated over 300 collective agreements between a number of unions and employers.
Last week, the union notified the city that they wanted to resume negotiations, said Norm McInnis, Fernie’s new CAO.
McInnis said the city considered the union’s offer and responded on Nov. 14. He anticipates both sides returning to the bargaining table.
“We’re fairly close,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see job action on either side and I’m hopeful we can get this thing done. It’s really unfortunate it got to this point but I’m hopeful we can get this five-year agreement signed.”