The City of Medicine Hat and its firefighters have agreed to a wage freeze in 2017.
It is an almost unprecedented feat in public sector bargaining, but one budgeters said was needed to grapple with a looming shortfall.
Council members, who unanimously ratified the agreement at Monday’s meeting, called it “courageous” on the part of both the firefighters union and city council.
The four-year agreement with the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters stretches back to 2015 and will provide raises totalling 5.1 per cent by the time it expires in late 2018.
However, the first two years are retroactive — characterized as catchup by council members — and the overall amount is likely less than inflation over the span.
Mayor Ted Clugston said the deal should also stand as a message to four other local city unions in talks for new deals.
“(The IAFF) could have taken us to arbitration and they would have received substantially more, but I think (firefighters) have shown leadership, and other unions should realize that it’s tough times,” said Clugston.
As well, said Clugston, the freeze also affects other cities that use out-of-town contracts as basis for local deals.
“Everyone is always leapfrogging one another … Now we have signalled and shown the courage to say ‘for 2017, it’s zero.’ I guarantee the rest of the province will take notice.”
Coun. Jim Turner, vice-chair of the corporate services committee, announced the agreement on Monday saying he often hears citizens asking for wage rollbacks at the bargaining table.
“We have to make decisions based on facts and from across the settlements in Alberta,” said Turner.
“It is a more-than-fair settlement, and I really have to complement the firefighters.”
Earlier this year, finance officials announced that a wage freeze for more than 1,100 city employees would be a key point in a plan to replace $24 million per year in energy dividends in the city budget.
Curtis Noble, the local IAFF president, said the contract was endorsed by a “clear majority” of his members at a meeting on Sunday.
“The guys at the hall have the same opinion every day, and that is that we are looking out for the best interests of the people of our community,” said Noble.
In Medicine Hat, about 80 IAFF members will receive retroactive raises for 2015 and 2016 of 1 and 2.1 per cent, respectively.
After no raise in 2017, a two per cent bump will take effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
In October, localized IAFF chapters settled a wave of contracts across Alberta, including Calgary, that only brought many contracts up to date.
Single contract year raises for many of those 1,750 firefighters sit in the range of 1.5 to 3 per cent.
Couns. Julie Friesen and Bill Cocks both said the deal in Medicine hat is good for the city compared to wage settlements in other cities.
“There’s no appetite for (city) wage increases in the city,” said Cocks. “We took what we thought was a tough stance.”
The agreement is “owed some respect. It’s a difficult situation.”
The city’s 10-year plan to address falling energy profits would see reserve funds buffer major tax increases, but suggested one-third of the $24-million yearly shortfall could be found by the end 2017-18 budget cycle.
Along with cost-cutting and higher fees, arresting growth of operational spending would mean a greater portion of any tax increase would go to fill the budget gap.
The firefighters however, are only the first of five union contracts the city has due in early 2017.
City administrators still have to negotiate with the Medicine Hat Police Association, the International Brotherhood of the Electrical Workers, both at the power plant and distribution unit, as well as the largest union, Canadian Union of Public employees, Local 46.
That union represents about 800 inside, outside and transit workers.