Published On Sat Feb 04 2012
By Linda Diebel National Affairs Writer
Citizens of Toronto, it all comes down to you.
The city could be ready as early as today to start stripping job security from its biggest union of outside workers, in what appears to be a Canadian test case on American-style restrictions on public sector unions.
Job security has been at the heart of the city’s contract talks with 6,000 employees, belonging to the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 416 and including garbage collectors. The Ford administration warned Friday it would jettison the contract if there’s no agreement and do what it wants, including announcing layoffs and firings in order to contract out to private companies.
All eyes are on Toronto. Talks went down to the wire Saturday night with Mayor Rob Ford reportedly saying he was “optimistic.”
Municipalities across Canada “are watching closely to see what happens here because it’s likely going to affect what they do,” said Councillor Shelley Carroll, a critic of Ford’s tactics. She called the Ford team’s hard line “union-bashing” and said, “It looks like Ford is taking us right to the precipice.”
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday wrote that these negotiations are the city’s “crucible” in the National Post Saturday, adding “it’s the defining experience in our city’s recent history.”
Labour lawyers, officials from the union and city councillors scrambled Friday and Saturday to find ways to avert what they feared was impending disaster. Opposition councillors sought legal advice on whether the Ford administration could change working conditions without seeking approval from council.
CUPE national president Paul Moist flew in from Ottawa to try and minimize reaction to Holyday’s comments which he called “unhelpful.” Although he stressed in an interview CUPE is “in the business of negotiating agreements,” he was clearly worried about fallout from Toronto.
They all know where the real power lies.
“It all hinges on public opinion,” said labour economist Hugh Mackenzie, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think-tank. He argues the Ford team’s public warning to suspend job security is “unheard of in collective bargaining in the Canadian public sector.
“This isn’t just an anti-union attack. I see it as anti-working class.”
Local 416 lawyer Howard Goldblatt hasn’t seen a similar situation in his 35 year career and neither, apparently, have the 40 labour lawyers in his firm, Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, with offices across Canada. Said Goldblatt: “It’s unprecedented. The law gives the (city) the authority to strip the contract, but that doesn’t mean Ford has to do it.”
The city’s take-it-or-leave-it final offer strips job protection for permanent employees with less than 22 years, reduces benefits, takes away a third-party grievance procedure (in effect, making the employer the final arbitrator of the employer’s actions) and removes the city’s responsibility to collect union dues on paycheques.
“It takes away the reason to have a union in the first place,” said a CUPE official.
Local 416 president Mark Ferguson said the union “will not be provoked,” but some believe a strike may be inevitable.
So what does the public think? The union ran ads on TV and in the print media last week. Both sides have been polling; neither will reveal results.
The Toronto Star hit the streets to interview about a dozen people for an anecdotal sense of where Torontonians stand and found, for starters, many stand on memories of piles of rotting garbage from the municipal strike in the summer of 2009.
“You’ve hit a nerve with me. I could care less what happens to them,” said a middle-aged homemaker who identified herself only as Abby. “I’m scared they’d come after me. During the last garbage strike, I was threatened when I took my garbage bags down (to a drop-off point). Big guys approached me and I felt physically threatened. I actually called the police.”
She wouldn’t even give her dog’s name.
Several people who insisted on anonymity agreed with her.
“CUPE is remarkably, profoundly aware of the (public relations) problem they face over the 2009 strike,” said Councillor Adam Vaughan, who opposes the city’s approach to bargaining. “That’s why (the union) hasn’t had a strike vote and has made significant concessions.”
Vaughan said he believes the city was posturing and there would be an agreement.
The union offered a three-year wage freeze and a change in job protection to employees on the job for five years and up, rather than all full-time staffers. The city offered wage increases — small lump-sum payments in the first three years and a 1.75 per cent payroll increase in the fourth year — however CUPE argues that job protection is gutted and that’s what counts.
“The idea that the labour movement must be backed into a corner by fat cats looking out for themselves is just wrong,” said Vaughan.
Toronto has 30,000 public sector workers, although this latest deadline affects only Local 416, which handles, among other duties, garbage collection, animal services and maintenance for parks and rinks. The Toronto police union wrapped up their contract last year, winning an 11.5 per cent increase over four years, a departure from the stringent cost-cutting.
A dapper, 50-ish Frank Smith, who works in a men’s clothing store, said that laying people off as a step to privatizing isn’t smart in the long run.
“Then we could find ourselves in a position where it comes back to bite us. In a few years, private companies could start charging anything they want. At least there’s some control when services are run by the city.”
Policy analyst Sabrina Hickel, in her 30s, supports the union, saying it’s “offensive and inflammatory that the city keeps talking about ‘jobs for life’ and misleading the public. It’s just propaganda. There’s no such clause.”
What’s called “jobs for life” (coined over a decade ago by former mayor Mel Lastman) is actually the right in layoff situations for “first in, last out.” In other words, seniority is respected and employees have bumping rights, but there are still layoffs, as the last round of budget cuts demonstrated with provisions made to lay off 1200 employees.
Elaine Bernard, a labour specialist at Harvard University Law School, said she hopes Canada doesn’t take the same path as the U.S. where many states, citing budget deficits, have sought deep and far-reaching changes to the collective bargaining process to limit union power.
“What’s happened here is a war on public sector employees and their right to collective bargaining,” said Bernard, who’s Canadian, in an interview, adding that it’s not just Republican governors who’ve gone on the offensive in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Indiana among others. Democrats in New York, California and Massachusetts also sought to limit the rights of public sector employees.
One attempt to limit collective bargaining was derailed in Canada. In 2002, B.C. gutted the rights of health-care unions, but the Supreme Court later ruled that collective bargaining is a constitutional right in Canada.
That might suggest the same legal ruling would apply here. But this is — as far as anyone can tell — the first time a city has gone to these lengths to take on its public sector unions.
It’s a stretch to believe anyone could be all that surprised by Ford’s tough stand. Councillor Gord Perks is one of many who argue that “the mayor set out to break the union from the beginning.” Another said he’s been “dreaming about it.”
“That’s not right,” said Holyday in an interview. “We don’t want to break anybody. We want to fix it. When management can’t manage its own people, something’s got to give. . . We have to have flexibility to provide services to taxpayers at less cost.”
He said that it’s important if there’s going to be a showdown over garbage, that it occur now, rather than in summer months.
Critic Perks believes that “Torontonians don’t want a protracted war with labour” or to see their city workers treated poorly. He said that “Ferguson has shown a level of sophistication and refusal to be provoked that I’m optimistic Torontonians will be able to see.”
That’s the big question.