WINNIPEG -- A lawyer for the union representing police officers told an arbitration hearing Tuesday morning the City of Winnipeg is wrong to think it has the authority to make unilateral changes to the police pension plan outside the collective bargaining process.

“You’re going to conclude, I’m confident, that the city’s position is not only wrong but it’s absurd,” Winnipeg Police Association lawyer Keith LaBossiere told arbitrator Michael Werier.

“I recognize that’s strong language but unfortunately in these circumstances it’s warranted.”

LaBossiere made those remarks as Werier started hearing arguments Tuesday morning at the RBC Convention Centre following recent changes made by city council to the Winnipeg police pension plan.

In November, council voted 9-7 to scale back the pension plan, which also carried a motion about using some of the savings to pay for officer salaries.

The city has previously said it received a legal opinion on making the changes to the pension plan outside the collective bargaining process.

The changes passed by council include removing overtime as a pensionable earning, increasing officer contributions and altering early retirement provisions.

Mayor Brian Bowman has said the pension plan is not sustainable. 

LaBossiere is making a case for the changes to be struck down and told Werier the WPA is also seeking an award of damages.

The union is seeking $2.8 million -- $50,000 for the association and $2,000 for each of its 1400 police members.

“Most importantly we expect you’re going to conclude that the city itself knows it shouldn’t be here,” LaBossiere told Werier. “That this is a political gambit in which the members of the police association, senior officers’ association are being used as pawns.

“Those are strong words but I expect to take you through a number of documents which make the point that I’ve made explicitly clear.”

LaBossiere argued it’s a relatively straight-forward case.

“For 40-plus years the parties have interpreted the collective agreement as you would expect them to,” he told Werier.

LaBossiere told the hearing the pension plan was created by a bylaw and that part of that bylaw was incorporated by way of negotiation into the collective agreement between the parties and the parties routinely and consistently attempted to negotiate changes to the pension plan during collective bargaining.

“It is absolutely clear that the entire bylaw in existence at this time or any time has not been incorporated into the collective agreement,” said LaBossiere. 

“You’ll see that the portion that is, which is referred to as schedule A in the bylaw, which is the terms and conditions of the pension plan itself, must be the subject of negotiation before a revision can be made and has always been the subject of negotiation before any revision has been made.”

Representatives and lawyers for the Winnipeg Police Association, Winnipeg Police Senior Officers’ Association and the City of Winnipeg were in attendance.

City lawyers have yet to make their case to the arbitrator. 

LaBossiere requested Werier make a ruling prior to Apr.1, 2020 — that’s when the changes are scheduled to take effect.

Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin said he’s hopeful the ruling will come before the changes are implemented.

“Our concern is that if the city is successful but we’re pretty sure that they’re not going to be, that this could cause a mass retirement because people are panicked right now,” said Sabourin. “For the last 25, 30 years members have been of the belief that this is what our pension plan looks like and to change those benefits is being done in extremely bad faith.”

The hearing, scheduled for three days, will continue Tuesday afternoon.

- With files from CTV's Jeff Keele.