WINNIPEG -- Lawyers representing the City of Winnipeg at an arbitration hearing over contentious changes to the Winnipeg police pension plan argued it did nothing wrong by making unilateral amendments to the plan outside the collective bargaining process.

The hearing was prompted by a grievance filed by the Winnipeg Police Association which is arguing the city doesn’t have the authority to make changes to the plan outside the collective bargaining process and breached its contract with the police union by doing so.

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

Ken Dolinsky, one of the lawyers representing the city, told arbitrator Michael Werier the wording in the pension plan bylaw, which he argued has been fully incorporated into the collective agreement with the WPA, gives the city the right to unilaterally amend the plan.

“It does not say, ‘there may be no future changes to the pension plan, except by negotiation award agreement,’” Dolinsky argued. “And there’s a very important distinction there."

“Incorporation into the collective agreement is not equivalent to ‘that’s the only way you can change it’ — bearing in mind what has already been incorporated into the collective agreement, from the city’s perspective, is the right to change that plan.”

Keith LaBossiere, a lawyer for the WPA, argued Tuesday only a portion of the bylaw has been incorporated into the collective agreement and that any changes to the plan require negotiation.

In addition to requesting the changes be reversed, the WPA is seeking more than $2.8 million in damages from the city for the way it handled the situation and framed debate on the issues arguing it damaged the reputation of officers and that the uncertainty about future pension benefits has impacted their mental health.

The WPA has requested a ruling on the arbitration by Apr.1, 2020. That’s when the new provisions of the pension plan are set to take effect. 

The hearing continues Wednesday afternoon.