Cornwall’s ability to pay: premier says city, unions need to be ‘very clear’ on position during arbitration

Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks with Coun. Bernadette Clement during a stop in Cornwall, Ont. Thursday, March 15, 2018. The premier says the city needs to be very clear and transparent when it comes to interest arbitration with union groups on the city's ability to pay. Mayor Leslie O'Shaughnessy says improving interest arbitration is at a 'standstill' and doesn't agree with the premier's assertion. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – As a number of the City of Cornwall’s union groups go through collective bargaining, Premier Kathleen Wynne says both sides need to be clear with information when it comes to binding interest arbitration.

During a whistle shop in Cornwall Thursday, Wynne said she has had “many conversations” with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and some changes have been made with respect to timelines of arbitration.

The Cornwall CUPE locals representing inside and outside workers, librarians and paramedics have voted overwhelmingly to strike to back contract demands. Glen-Stor-Dun Lodge workers can’t strike because they are deemed an essential service, meaning their dispute with the city will go to binding arbitration.

Cornwall firefighters are also without a contract, which expired two weeks after an arbitrator made a decision on their last contract, which ended December 2015.

The city has long argued that the board of arbitration has never put enough weight on a municipality’s ability to pay for settlements of collective agreements. In other words, the ability for the City of Toronto to pay an award is much different than the City of Cornwall.

It came up during the last round of collective bargaining with the City of Cornwall and the Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association.

Under the arbitration process, both the employer and the employee group put their case before a three-member tribunal. The panel then makes a decision, which is legally binding for both sides. It’s usually the last resort in collective bargaining.

“The whole issue about ability to pay (in arbitration), it has to be very clear to the arbitrator exactly what is on the table,” Premier Kathleen Wynne told Cornwall Newswatch Thursday.

Wynne said the government has made some changes but “we listened to the employer, we listened to the employees but we are not scrapping arbitration,” the premier said.

There was “no agreement” among the parties that the process should be scrapped, she added.

She said the onus is on “both sides” – the city and the unions in this case – to bring “very clear” and “transparent” information to the bargaining table. Her comment seems to suggest the city has not been forthright with its position, financially speaking.

Asked if the city had not been clear with its position, Cornwall Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy said “no” unequivocally. “I don’t think that would be a correct statement,” he said in an interview with CNW.

The mayor said the city and union groups can go through years of negotiations and once it heads to arbitration, others factors argued before are “irrelevant” and the arbitrator “looks more at the job.”

“That goes back to equal pay for equal work,” O’Shaughnessy said, comparing a firefighter in Toronto to one in Cornwall. “But the question again becomes, we don’t live in Toronto. We don’t live in Toronto’s economy.”

As for any improvement in the arbitration system, Mayor O’Shaughnessy said he met personally in Cornwall with Labour Minister Kevin Flynn on two other times as chairman of the Eastern Ontario Mayors’ Caucus, but the issue is at a “standstill.”

The mayor says a so-called white paper – a policy report giving information or proposals on interest arbitration – was sent to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario but AMO has refused to give him a copy despite repeated requests.

“We’re no farther ahead now than we were…(it’s) been on the table for many, many years.”