Mayor and CAO address staff issues, union talks

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In the face of talk that some town staff are unhappy and are considering forming a union, Mayor Jeff Genung is looking to address the root cause of employee dissatisfaction and change the culture at the Town of Cochrane.

Genung and CAO Dave Devana held an all-staff meeting on Monday morning – reportedly the first of its kind and the reason town offices were closed until late morning – to address a room of around 200 town employees from all departments.

“I’ve heard talk and I’m aware of it … what that says to me is that we have a problem that needs to be fixed,” said Genung.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of staff and I’ve heard their frustrations and I’m deeply concerned with the state of affairs.”

Genung said the feedback he is getting overwhelmingly indicates that staff, many of whom are boots-on-the-ground personnel, feel their voices are landing on deaf ears and their input is not valued with respect to how policies are shaped and enforced. In his opinion, the primary area of concern is not salaries and compensation.

“I’m not attempting to convince anyone of anything … they are free to do what they want to do – union or no union,” said Genung, adding that he is concerned that if administration does not address the concerns among staff as to why they are unhappy, that the divisive sentiments will continue – regardless of whether employees choose to unionize.

Canadian legislation dictates an employer (the Town of Cochrane, including the mayor) cannot interfere with a potential employee unionization process.

“I’m less focused on whether or not we unionize and more focused on why this is happening … this is not a performance issue. The town staff are functioning at a high level, but I’m concerned if this problem remains unfixed it will begin to affect performance. In order to address our big projects ahead – including the bridge and traffic – we need staff to continue to perform at that high level.”

Dot Gillis has worked for the Town of Cochrane for 21 years. Gillis is an administrative assistant at the protective services building, where Cochrane Fire Services works – currently the town’s only unionized force.

“The last few years there has been a culture shift at the town … every employee wants to work there, but they want to feel valued,” said Gillis, adding that she is proud to work for the town and has been personally treated “exceptionally well” throughout her years of services.

“I was very impressed that the new CAO and mayor took it upon themselves with this type of format,” said Gillis, adding that she cannot recall the town ever holding an all-staff meeting of that capacity.

Gillis said she is ambivalent as to whether the formation of a union is the right call for town staff – but that the bigger problem is addressing the culture and the reason for unhappy staff seeking change.

Another long term employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said he does not always feel heard by his superiors but was encouraged by the staff-wide meeting.

“There is a huge commitment from our new CAO and the mayor to fix the problems,” he said.

Devana said one of the ways he is looking to address the apparent sentiment is to create a staff/management committee, which would be comprised of himself, two additional management members and several non-management staff.

The representatives would be nominated by fellow staff members to be the voices and the committee would meet monthly; he said these types of committees are common in union and non-unionized organizations.

“Staff have been feeling they don’t have a voice … this (committee) would establish a feedback loop,” said Devana.

The town’s administrative directive for recruitment and selection (hiring policy) is currently under review, with revisions anticipated by this spring. The policy was approved in 2008.

Devana has directed all town job postings be publicly posted where internal and external candidates are provided an even playing field to compete for jobs.

For Genung, the Monday meeting was a step in the right direction to rid the town of any “us versus them” sentiment and to rebuild a fragmented culture at the town.

Unionization

The majority of Alberta municipalities with union workers are covered under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which has over 650,000 members across the country. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees also covers a few municipalities in the province.

The list of unionized municipal forces in Alberta is lengthy, including both Calgary and Edmonton and comparably-sized municipalities such as Ft. Saskatchewan, Camrose, Brooks and Canmore.

The number of departments that are unionized within each municipality varies.

Lou Arab, the Alberta communications officer for CUPE, said there are no immediate costs to the employer when employees choose to unionize and employee dues are not paid until a collective bargaining agreement has been reached.

Average union dues range between 1.25- two per cent of gross employee earnings.

The collective bargaining process seeks to bring employee wages up to “at least market rates” and factors in cost of living increases.

Arab said there is a “strong disincentive” to look to striking as a bargaining method and in his 10 years of service with CUPE, with some 200 collective agreements in Alberta, there have been three strikes.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress, union members earned an average of $5.28 per hour more than workers without a union.

An estimated 30.4 per cent of Canadian workers are union members.

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Lindsay Seewalt

Lindsay is a senior Eagle reporter who has transformed her penchant for storytelling into the craft of writing. She has a knack for getting the scoop on stories and is a strong interviewer. The U of C and MRU English/Journalism graduate is committed to telling every story through a new lens, from a fresh perspective. Currently, her focus is on news and politics reporting, including town hall. She has a passion for providing a platform for underdogs, grassroots movements and those who have the courage to put themselves out there. She bases the strength of her stories on the depth of her connection with her interviewee, which is best done over too much coffee.