January 16, 2009 Volume 110 Number 2

Vancouver Fire Fighters give up raises to help city coffers

Union firefighters have voted to give up a pay raise so that the City of Vancouver can afford to staff a new fire station.

In results announced Dec. 30, members of Fire Fighters Local 452 voted by a 91 percent margin to approve a one-year contract extension that contains scheduled step increases, but no cost-of-living allowance (COLA). The 164 members of the union had been scheduled for a 4 percent increase.

“The budget situation being what it was, we reconsidered,” said Local 452 President Mark Johnston.

Vancouver city government has been hit hard by the recession: Sales tax revenue is down because of a decline in sales, and property tax revenues are expected to decline in about a year because of falling home values. So far the city has reacted by eliminating 30 positions, including 16 layoffs.

“We were just really concerned about public safety, especially in the east part of city,” Johnston said.

The skipped COLA is expected to save Vancouver $700,000 in 2009, an amount that will make a difference when the city opens a new fire station in east Vancouver in January 2010.

Johnson said this is the first time in at least 25 years that the union has agreed to a wage freeze. Average wages are about $70,000 a year for the group, which includes firefighters and paramedics.

Johnston said it helped that the sacrifice is being shared: The city has told managers and other nonunion workers they won’t be getting a COLA.

Local 452’s new agreement did have some improvements for members: An increase from six days a year of sick leave to 12 days, and an increase in the maximum amount of unused sick leave that can be banked: from about six months worth to nine months worth.

The skipped COLA could have implications for other unions at the city. Contract negotiations are under way for three other bargaining units: Fire Fighters Local 452, which represents deputy fire marshals; Office & Professional Employees International Union Local 11, which represents some city bureaus; and the Joint Labor Coalition, a four-union unit that includes members of American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 307-VC, Teamsters Local 58, Machinists District Lodge 24, and Plumbers Local 290.

“I know there are employers out there who are going to use this against their unions,” Johnson said. “We don’t necessarily recommend this, or say every group should be doing this.”

The contract covering police officers won’t expire until the end of 2009, and the Police Guild said no to reopening its contract to negotiate giving up the COLA.

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