Six city councils in New Brunswick voted Monday night to ask the province to make arbitration boards take a city's ability to pay into account when dealing with police and firefighter contracts.
Fredericton, Edmundston, Campbellton, Bathurst, Dieppe and Miramichi all approved the motion calling for changes in the Industrial Relations Act.
Moncton postponed the debate and Saint John will discuss the proposal on Nov. 18.
The Cities of New Brunswick Association has been pushing for the change since the provincial election more than a year ago, said Miramichi Mayor Adam Lordon, the group's chair.
Lordon said the association has been seeing a disproportionate increase in the the salary levels of municipal police and firefighters.
"Since 2005, the average salary increase in the protective services in New Brunswick has been between 60 and 70 per cent and for everybody else it's been well below 20 per cent," he said.
Lordon said the current model is one of comparison, but smaller cities and municipalities are often compared with larger cities.
"The city of Miramichi gets compared to cities like Moncton and Fredericton, who get compared to Halifax, who gets compared to Toronto, so you quickly get on a track where, you know, the salary expectations in a community like Miramichi are all of a sudden being compared to much larger cities."
The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour said it won't have a comment on the cities' resolution until all municipalities vote on it.
Municipal firefighters and police say that what the cities are seeking would make the wage negotiation and arbitration process unbalanced.
"My concern is that they want to take a fair arbitration system and replace it with an alternative that is in favour of one side over the other," said Glenn Sullivan, a platoon captain with the Fredericton Fire Department and the president of the Atlantic Provinces Professional Firefighters Association.
He said that in the past 20 years, arbitrated and negotiated settlements for the locals he represents have been almost the same.
"It's in fact less than half a per cent difference between the two," Sullivan said.
The municipalities group is saying the system is broken, but the province should listen to all stakeholders before making a decision, he said.
To do otherwise would be "a very sad day in politics and in labour relations in New Brunswick."
Lordon contends that considering a municipality's ability to pay does not remove any of the other criteria that arbitrators must consider, but it levels the playing field.
"If a community is being mismanaged or misrun, you know, then that would in a sense become part of the criteria as well," he said.
Lordon said wage increases for municipal employees can make up a significant part of costs for smaller cities and towns.
"Each year the increases to unionized employees, and a majority of it being the protective services, make up traditionally about three-quarters of our operating budget increase."
He said he understand the association and the protective services unions are not aligned on this issue but hopes a respectful, fact-based discussion can be had.
"We appreciate and have full respect for the work that they do, and and and what they bring to our communities and how they keep us safe."
The association hopes the reform will be introduced in the legislature when MLAs return in the next few weeks.