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Wage freeze an uphill battle at Woolwich Township

A recent 4.75-per-cent, three-year wage increase for unionized workers at Wellesley Township is likely to be a factor in Woolwich negotiations later this year, making a wage freeze less likely. The provincial government simply hasn’t given municipalities the tools to deal with ever-growing payroll costs, says the township’s chief administrative officer.

“If the McGuinty government wanted to implement across-all-of-the-public-sector wage freezes, the question is why did they not look at legislating wage freezes?” asked David Brenneman, noting voluntary measures are not likely to succeed.
In the absence of such legislation, municipalities are stuck with the regular collective bargaining process, including mediation and arbitration, he added.

Those processes have not been favourable to cash-strapped municipalities, typically awarding settlements well above the province’s professed zero per cent. Case in point, this week’s decision to give Toronto Transit Commission workers two per cent raises in each of the next three years.

In a system that uses other municipalities as the benchmark, rather than private-sector wages that are stagnant or falling, settlements elsewhere are bound to have an impact on what happens in Woolwich, said Brenneman. The township won’t begin negotiations with its outside workers, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, until the fall.

In April, Wellesley agreed to a three-year deal, retroactive to Jan. 1, that provides for a 1.5 per cent wage increase this year, 1.5 in 2013 and 1.75 in 2014 for its 12 unionized employees.
That agreement was made in the shadow of austerity, said Will McLaughlin, Wellesley’s executive director of operations.

“We were able to get it to remain at three years, which was probably a good thing considering all that has happened since. It’s funny because when we started negotiations, the atmosphere out there was one thing, and by the time this was passed at council the atmosphere was McGuinty and his zero per cent, and all that stuff was gaining momentum,” he said of the province’s call for public-sector wage freezes.

“We’re happy as a community, and the union fellows understand as well that there is a big push for austerity out there. They listen to the radio and watch the TV the same as everyone else. It was quite reasonable negotiating with them.”

Under the new contract, this year the lowest wage for a labourer is $19.68 an hour. For a plow truck operator, it’s $23.56.

In Woolwich, the terms of the current three-year contract, which expires at year’s end, sets the average wage at $23.87 an hour. That deal saw workers get three-per-cent more each year, a combination of cost-of-living increases and market adjustments.

Brenneman, noting the township would not be negotiating in the media, said he would not discuss its position prior to talks getting underway.

“The township does appreciate that, ultimately, it’s our job to negotiate fiscally responsible agreements,” he said, recognizing that wages, salaries and benefits are a significant part of the budget, representing about half of its operating costs.
As for the non-unionized staff, about two-thirds of the 63 full-time employees, their salary increases have of late been tied to the hikes in the union contracts. Over the last three years, that meant 1.5 per cent a year, reflecting the cost-of-living increases in the union deal, not the market top-ups, he explained.

While councillors are not involved in contract negotiations, they ultimately must ratify any deal, and are also responsible for the entire payroll budget, Brenneman added. This year, for instance, the township has allotted $6.05 million for staffing costs, covering its 63 full-time staff members and 304 part-timers, including firefighters. That number is up 26.4 per cent over the past five years, with staff costs at $4.8 million in 2008.

Thus far, council has not indicated any plans for austerity, approving two new staff positions in 2012.

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