THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay’s city council has approved a controversial increase for senior staff that drew protests from unionized workers at city hall on Monday.
The pay band adjustment, which city administration said is necessary to stay competitive in a tightening labour market, was passed on an 8-4 vote.
About 100 union workers picketed city hall Monday evening before the vote, from ATU Local 966, CUPE Local 87, and OPSEU.
“This isn’t just for us,” said ATU Local 966 president Fred Caputo. “This is [about] the way city management is handling our money. I think residents of Thunder Bay should be leery and wanting city council to be more open and transparent.”
The city had declined to share details of the adjustment ahead of Monday's vote. In a statement Tuesday morning, city manager Norm Gale offered some additional information, saying the adjustment will allow for performance-based increases of 1 to 4 per cent a year, with a small number of larger adjustments.
Just 18 of the 329 employees in the management and non-union group will receive the maximum 8 per cent adjustment this year, he said, and those include frontline supervisors and administrative staff, not top executives.
The pay band adjustment comes on top of a general 4 per cent increase approved for that group this year, which will cost the city $1.1 million.
The adjustment will cost just $84,111 this year, staff reported, but questions over its longer-term cost remained unanswered.
Caputo warned increases for senior staff will be a factor in collective bargaining, which begins next year for both the ATU and CUPE, together representing around a thousand city workers.
"It’s going to be a real tough go,” Caputo said. “I think the city knows that. CUPE goes up first in January, so we’re going to send a message then.”
Workers at Monday's rally said they’re irked by the city approving larger increases for management than for union workers.
“They already got 4 per cent, and that’s above our percentage,” said one transit mechanic (the ATU bargained for an increase of 1.5 per cent this year).
Many mechanics could make $10 to $15 more an hour elsewhere, he added, saying some are seriously considering it.
“What’s holding us here is we do have a pension, we do have benefits. But the [salary] is not there. I don’t think our gas or our groceries are any cheaper than the managers’ and supervisors’.”
Inside council chambers, Coun. Mark Bentz reiterated optics concerns over the adjustment.
“Given that many in the public and private sector are at 2 per cent or lower this year, given that many of our unions settled at less than 2 per cent, for us to go near 12 per cent – even for a small minority of our staff – is going to be problematic," he said.
However, a majority of his colleagues argued the increases might be bad optics, but are good policy.
Measuring against a list of comparable Ontario municipalities, compensation for the group now falls 9.1 per cent short of the midpoint, a target council set when it established a pay band policy for the group in 2007, Gale said.
The bands haven't been adjusted since, and 62 per cent of employees in the group have reached the top of their band.
Coun. Albert Aiello questioned the inclusion of southern Ontario cities on the city's list of comparators.
“We have nothing in common with the City of Barrie or the City of Oshawa,” he said. “We don’t have the growth happening in our community like that.”
Gale downplayed the financial impact of the band adjustment, saying the majority of staff will receive no immediate adjustment (though all will receive the 4 per cent general increase).
Coun. Brian Hamilton said that stood in contrast to “misinformation” about the increase, also noting progression along the bands is performance-based.
“The optics of it might look poor,” he said. “This came into the media a couple of weeks ago talking about 12 per cent raises, and the people were pulling out their pitchforks like it was going to cost multi-millions of dollars. We find out here tonight it’s going to cost [$84,111] and it’s going to allow our most effective managers to stay in their positions and continue performing well for the citizens of Thunder Bay.”
Bentz pushed back, asking Gale how much the adjustment will cost after this year – an answer administration did not have available.
“No matter how you cut it – you can say it’s performance-based, it’s this, it’s that, no one’s getting it this year. But everyone will get it eventually, that’s the point.”
Bentz moved a failed amendment to cut the adjustment from 8 to 2 per cent, defeated on an 8-4 vote.
Coun. Peng You called it “the wrong time” for a large increase for management.
“It’s dividing the council chamber, dividing our employees – it’s not healthy for our community,” he said.
Coun. Aldo Ruberto argued the city needs to ensure it retains key staff, because their departure causes major setbacks.
“I talked to about six managers in the last probably three weeks,” he said. “I think four of them have gotten calls from recruiters.”
Coun. Cody Fraser said the adjustment is the cost of doing business in an increasingly competitive labour market for employers.
“I understand in the community this does not feel proper, it doesn’t feel good,” he said. “There’s always going to be political pressure to not do this. We see it with the yearly charade we do with the council increase.”
“If we want this city to move forward… we’re going to have to recruit properly.”
He added the move would hardly be bad for unions, who he said would be “licking their chops” heading into a round of bargaining in the context of high inflation, a tight labour market, and increases for management.
“I think Coun. Fraser said it best – unions will be licking their chops,” Bentz shot back. “They’re watching this. Of course they’re going to go for a big settlement – we’re okaying up to 12 per cent for one employee group.”
Couns. Ch’ng, Fraser, Hamilton, Johnson, McKinnon, Oliver, Ruberto, and Mayor Mauro voted in favour of the adjustment. Couns. Aiello, Bentz, Giertuga, and You voted against.
Note: An earlier version of this story stated the pay band adjustment would cost the city $63,000 in 2022. In fact, the amount is $84,111. TBnewswatch apologizes for the error.