By Trevor Busch
The Town of Taber has ratified a new three-year collective agreement with its unionized employees, which will see a total five per cent wage increase over the agreed time period.
Passed by council following the closed session (in camera) portion of the Oct. 13 regular meeting, the contract with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2038 will see a one per cent increase retroactive to 2015, another one per cent increase for 2016, and followed by a three per cent increase for 2017.
“It wasn’t approved unanimously by council, and it’s my understanding not all CUPE members were in favour of it either, so in a way, this is that great Canadian evidence of compromise — not everybody is entirely happy, so it must be an OK deal,” CAO Greg Birch told the Times last week. “It took longer to negotiate than either side had expected. It was a collegial discussion. It didn’t take so long because we couldn’t agree, we had a large committee, and we had a hard time getting everybody to meet. The length of time that it took to negotiate wasn’t because of difficulties.”
CUPE’s Local 2038 also ratified the agreement at their own meeting on Oct. 15 following council’s Oct. 13 decision.
According to Mayor Henk DeVlieger, the vote on the contract on Oct. 13 was a close-run decision, with only Coun.(s) Randy Sparks, Andrew Prokop, and Laura Ross-Giroux voting in favour of approving the contract. Coun.(s) Jack Brewin and Rick Popadynetz were absent from the meeting.
“It was a 3-2 vote. It was not unanimous,” said DeVlieger in an interview following the meeting. “Joe (Coun. Strojwas) and myself kind of voted against it. I wasn’t totally satisfied, but majority rules, and I put myself behind it, too.”
In preparation for the negotiations, town administration’s negotiating committee investigated wage rates paid for similar positions in neighbouring municipalities in southern Alberta.
“The essence of the agreement, at least from the town management side, was to achieve a couple of objectives,” said Birch. “One was we did a market study, and some of the wage levels for some of our employees were below market levels, so we wanted to rectify that. We wanted to give a cost of living increase that was realistic given inflation rates, which I think we achieved — which is good for both sides,” said Birch.
In what amounts to the contractual equivilant of a shell game, during negotiations the Town of Taber was able to win back some vacation time from union employees but conceded significant wage increases in a number of areas.
“While some of our wage levels for some of the job positions were lower the market, the vacation time allocation — the days off, if you will — were a little higher than our study would suggest was the norm in municipal governments in this area,” said Birch. “We essentially said let’s try to correct for the wage levels, but also correct for vacation. In essence, that became a little bit of a trade, to make sure that people were treated fairly across the board. They gave up some time off — not to be below the market — but trying to equalize things. Those were two interests we had going into the negotiation as a management group, and ultimately, that was agreed to.”
According to Birch, the new 2015-2017 collective agreement strikes the right balance between fiscal responsibility and the demands of unionized employees.
“I think so, because we purposely went out and looked at one commonly available study produced by the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, so we had that data about wages, and then we also used a private company to assess 14 other municipalities in southern Alberta that we thought we had elements in common with, to see what they were paying. So we had a pretty good idea what other municipalities in this area are paying. We’ve moved to a more balanced position relative to other municipalities in southern Alberta.”
Birch claimed no ulterior motive in backloading a three per cent increase in the contract into its final year in 2017.
“Not really. It was just the way it worked out. In essence, inflation rates are fairly low right now, but we anticipate that won’t always be the case. So we’re trying to be realistic with those numbers, without of course being able to see the future. Inflation is low this year, we know that, probably not a big change next year, but at some point interest rates will go up, inflation with go up, and so that’s why.”
The town’s chief administrative officer went on to note revisions were also made to the contract document to improve “core areas of uncertainty that are existent”.
Increases mandated in the agreement for 2015 were already budgeted for and approved with an anticipated estimate in the 2014 budget, according to Birch. However, he was unable to determine the financial implications of the contract for the town or taxpayers, nor even provide an estimate of what that figure might be.
“We haven’t calculated out the exact amounts yet. It’s fairly complex. That’s actually one of the realizations that we had as we were looking at that, because as you start to change wages, in Category 1, certain positions get an increase, and then you have the overall cost of living increases, and then you have you have to make assumptions about how many people are in each job category.”