I have to respond to the headline, “Is CUPE running your city hall?” by Tom Fletcher. I say the headline because I don’t have the time nor the intestinal fortitude to read his highly polarizing right wing opinions. That said, this is a question Burnaby voters need to consider on November 15.

I am part of a union and benefit from the hard work leaders and negotiators have done. I have a safe workplace, good benefits and protection against unscrupulous employment practices- all gained through hard bargaining and, in some cases, having to walk off the job or being locked out. I gladly pay my dues, and other deductions, including taxes in order to ensure the sustainability and longevity of my career. I believe that the working conditions agreed upon through free collective bargaining should be the standard for all workers in Canada. I support the union movement in its struggle to protect the rights of all workers.

But, to answer Mr. Fletcher’s question, that’s for you to decide. CUPE donated $63,500 to the incumbent councilors, mayor and trustees prior to the 2011 civic election and a similar amount prior to the 2008 election. In December 2012, after the governing party swept all the seats for a second time, CUPE ratified a new contract with the City. It succeeded a previous contract negotiated through Metro Vancouver which gave city staff a 17.5% wage hike over 5 years. At the time of ratification of the new agreement,which provides a total of 6.75 per cent in wage increases over four years, the City and Union agreed not to release the details of the contract or a memorandum of agreement (MOU) on about fifty issues. “Working directly with the employer, we were able to quickly and effectively negotiate a fair and reasonable agreement which satisfies both parties,” said a Union representative.

Despite calls for a working copy of the agreement and a freedom of information request,  the contract details were suppressed for another eighteen months! Prior to it being posted on the Union’s website in June 2014, (It is not posted on the City website.) I was first told by City employees to speak to the union about seeing the contract, as though it was the union’s decision whether to reveal the detail’s not the HR department. In response to my persistent request the City sent me copies of the expired contract instead!

The salary increase seems reasonable enough, but salary is only part of the negotiation. Benefits are the other part. In the City of Burnaby “The City shall pay one hundred percent” of the premiums required by the Medical Services Plan, Dental Services Plan, Extended Health Benefits Plan and  Group Life Insurance.

But what about the pension plan? According to the City’s 2013 Financial Plan, “the City of Burnaby paid $11.3 million for employer contributions while employees contributed $9.5 million dollars to the plan in fiscal 2013. However, according to the City’s Statement of Financial Information (SOFI) mandated by the Province, the City actually paid $22.77 million into the Municipal Pension Plan. This suggests that the City is covering 100% of the premiums required by that plan as well.

According to the SOFIs for 2011 to 2013 City payments to the Municipal Pension Plan increased 22.85 percent. Staff remuneration increased 6.7 percent. Under the new contract the number of employees earning over $75,000 jumped 21 percent. The average salary for that group of employees in 2013 was $94805.91 To illustrate the increasing cost of salary, a randomly chosen employee, planner 2 received a 16.65 percent increase in salary. Similarly, a firefighter received an increase of 15.77 percent. By comparison, the Mayor’s remuneration jumped over 10 percent to a total of $156543.00 in 2013. One of the largest increases was for a city councillor whose remuneration rose 23.4 percent to $70579.00

But the fact that our government is generous to its employees and elected officials is not evidence that CUPE controls our city. It may, however, suggest that the employer is a lousy negotiator. More direct evidence of union control over the City’s decision might be the fact that commissions and committees are often stacked with commissioners and committee members with strong ties to their unions. The most blatant example is the current parks commission whose appointed membership includes commissioners from at least four unions.

Understandably, our Mayor has come out against limiting donations from unions and corporations. Burnaby, through its influence,  has successfully ensured that such a reform will be at least another four years away. Without question, money talks, and one municipal party has a lot of it courtesy of unions and developers. I support the work of unions to protect workers, but I would welcome stricter limits on union and corporate  influence in local elections.

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