City workers get ready to bargain as collective agreements near expiration date

Four collective agreements affecting more than 2,300 City of Regina workers will expire at the end of this year, and union leaders are ready to back each other up.

Regina Leader Post – October 15, 2018

One day in early October, the heads of four City of Regina union locals met in the firefighters’ association boardroom to discuss the common struggle ahead. All of their members – 2,323 city employees – will see their collective agreements expire on Dec. 31. Kevin Lucier, who leads ATU Local 588 representing transit operators, said the four presidents updated each other on their preparations for upcoming negotiations. He said it’s wise to present a united front.

“We’re just sort of starting now,” said Lucier. “There’s going to be some benefit in communications with the rest to see where everybody is, what everyone is asking for.”

Richel Nixon of CUPE Local 7 feels the same way. “We are very supportive of each other’s concerns and will continue to work together to bring any shared concerns to our respective bargaining tables,” she wrote in an email response. The union locals have begun surveying their members to settle on priorities for bargaining. Securing pay increases in a tough economic environment is a major concern for many.

 “My goal at the conclusion of negotiations is to secure enhancements to the established collective agreement language and, of course, increases to wages and benefits,” wrote Maria Kotsetas, president of the city’s largest union – Local 21 – which represents 1,544 city employees.

The fourth collective agreement set to expire covers the 272 members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 181.

A fifth agreement, for the 306 members of the Regina Civic Middle Management Association, expired in January of this year. A push for arbitration has hit an impasse and has been bogged down since May, according to a source familiar with the proceedings.

The standoff could be a signal for what’s ahead at the other bargaining tables. “Seeing them having a little bit of difficulty does raise a few flags,” said Lucier, “but again, we’re each going to have our own difficulties anyway.”

The city’s human resource department did not make anyone available for an interview. Its director, Steve Eger, noted in a statement that “historically the city has successfully negotiated collective agreements.” Mayor Michael Fougere wasn’t willing to comment on specifics, but he spoke to the importance of the city’s relationship with its staff.

“We want to attract the best and brightest people here…” he said. “We also want to provide the best working environment for our staff. If they work for the City of Regina they work for the best employer in the city, as far as I’m concerned. So we want to make sure that continues.”

The city is facing yet another budget crunch next year. In August, financial and corporate services executive director Barry Lacey told councillors that expenses are outpacing natural revenue growth. Salaries and benefits make up roughly 50 per cent of city spending on operations.

Fougere said he doesn’t agree with the “supposition” that the city will have to rein in salary costs if it wants to keep taxes affordable. But Lucier said he expects the city to point to those pressures as a pretext for keeping increases below the rate seen in past contracts.

“We kind of know that going in, with the economic environment that we’re in,” he said. Lucier said he doesn’t want to go to the table with unrealistic expectations, saying that will only drag the process out. But he said his members expect a fair offer.

Despite some common concerns over pay, each union has its own unique issues. Bus drivers have been trying to get a shuttle to take them from the transit operations centre to their start points downtown. “At this point, we’re sort of forced to use our own vehicles,” Lucier said. “It was actually brought up at a general meeting back in like 1991 or ’92, so it’s been an issue for some time.”

He said there’s some indication that management is “softening” its stance on the issue. But there are other disputes to work out. He said the union has concerns over a new night shift for mechanics, saying it’s essential to “address the retention and recruitment of our mechanics” as it gets underway next year. He also noted frustrations with “horrible” eye-care benefits.

“I mean, driving a bus, you kind of need vision care,” he said. “So I’m a little bit surprised that they’ve been reluctant to to improve on that” The local also feels like transit operators don’t get a “fair shake” when they file grievances through their dispute resolution process. “The deck is stacked against us,” Lucier said. He said that issue came up at the October meeting in the firefighters’ boardroom. 

Kotsetas told the Leader-Post that there’s no problem with the language on dispute resolution — as far as CUPE Local 21’s current agreement is concerned — though sometimes the way its interpreted can be an issue.

She said she doesn’t believe there are any major issues of contention between the local and management at the moment. She said the union has no indication that the city will be seeking a salary freeze.

“We are optimistic that the city will continue to invest in their employees,” she wrote. “We will sit with the city and explore options that I hope will include a monetary wage / benefit increase.” 

Kotsetas said she hopes bargaining process will be over “as soon as possible.”