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Flashpoint: Shakespearean-type tragedy in Montreal


June 1, 2009
By Peter Sells

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Is it too dramatic to pose the long-standing differences between the City of Montreal and the Montreal Firefighters Association in Shakespearean terms? I don’t think so, because this feud has gone on for so long and has featured such drastic actions and entrenched positions as to make the Capulets and Montagues seem reasonable by comparison.

Is it too dramatic to pose the long-standing differences between the City of Montreal and the Montreal Firefighters Association in Shakespearean terms? I don’t think so, because this feud has gone on for so long and has featured such drastic actions and entrenched positions as to make the Capulets and Montagues seem reasonable by comparison.

Back in the ’90s the issues were staffing levels, proper equipment and outstanding collective agreements. Over the last few years, those same issues have remained bones of contention. Look at this list of actions and reactions and see if you can spot any that indicate a commitment to the constructive resolution of problems.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, staffing dropped to about 1,600 firefighters from 2,500.

A 1989 study, which recommended building two new stations and relocating others, was not acted upon.

Faced with the reality of provincial downloading and enormous budget pressures, the MFA formulated a 1996 plan to cut labour costs by $10 million through retirement incentives, a wage freeze and other concessions.

That plan was rejected by the city as inadequate. When an arbitrator rejected a 1997 MFA grievance challenging the city’s right to cut staffing despite commitments made in contract negotiations, the city stated in a communiqué that it had “the right to diminish the numbers of firefighters according to need.”

In 1998, a rash of sabotage incidents took place in Montreal fire stations. Hoses were punctured, computer and phone systems rendered inoperative and fire apparatus defaced with paint. Firefighters on duty were suspended for refusing to clean up the mess and for other issues of insubordination.

Fast forward to 2007.

Once again, a study recommending a staffing increase is not acted upon. In this case, an expert panel created by the city and the union to draw a risk-coverage plan for Montreal Island called for hiring 500 more firefighters.

The rejection of this plan resulted in the MFA withdrawing from contract negotiations in April 2007.

In October, the city sent cleanup crews and locksmiths under police escort into 12 fire stations to clean up windows that had been painted over and to repair locks and doors that had been filled with glue or welded shut. Security guards were posted to ensure that chief officers had access to their offices.

No contract was negotiated or arbitrated, allowing the city to gap any increase since 2006.

And now, in 2009 . . .

The CSST, Quebec’s workplace safety board, recommended staffing Montreal apparatus with a minimum of four firefighters, a practice that is recognized as standard across North America.

The city publicly stated that it regards the CSST ruling as “not imposing any obligation on the employer.”

Binding arbitration is pending for the 2007-2009 contract and arguments are due for the 2010-2012 contract. No hope for a negotiated contract would be realistic.

Here’s my take, albeit from a distance: the city has consistently and brazenly ignored best practice and the recommendations of its own commissioned studies, whereas reactionary elements within the membership have recklessly endangered public safety and the lives of their own comrades through their juvenile and criminal tantrums. The MFA has the only claim to any high ground, and that claim is tenuous due to its apparent inability to control or discipline the lunatic fringe.

Certainly the economic climate in Montreal has been excessively challenging over the last 30 years. And although I am no expert in labour law, it appears that arbitrators have a distinctly pro-management slant in Quebec (just as they seem to be more pro-labour in Ontario). This pro-management inclination gives the city a reliable fall-back position and represents a disincentive to bargain in good faith.

Regardless, the best way to repair the relationship and move forward responsibly is through co-operative interest-based actions, not adversarial posturing and self-destruction. It is fortunate that no major fire losses have occurred, because the odds are stacked against the continued safe and effective operation of a fire department that is founded on a dysfunctional labour/management relationship.

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate. It is a wonder that the people of Montreal have put up with this for so long, and for winking at your discords too have not lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d. A plague on both your houses.•


District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America  and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.


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