Union made offers from the get-go

Mark Ferguson, National Post · Feb. 11, 2012 | Last Updated: Feb. 11, 2012 3:07 AM ET http://www.nationalpost.com

Last week, Doug Holyday, Toronto’s deputy mayor, commented on contract talks with city employees. Today Mark Ferguson, president of CUPE local 416, which represents about 6,000 outside workers, replies. Local 416 employees vote Monday on a new contract with the city.

For many residents, it’s public services that make Toronto such a great city. And it’s the public employees that make those services possible. Yet we nearly had those services unfairly withdrawn by the employer last week, prevented by the willingness of our members – the women and men of CUPE 416 – to put people first.

Now, predictably, the City administrators who were willing to risk it all are trying to take credit.

We know, however, that a small circle of people close to the Mayor’s office directed negotiations. At every opportunity to de-escalate, to sit down and negotiate, they chose instead to put people’s services at risk, by risking the jobs of the people who deliver them.

It would have been easy to follow suit, and turn negotiations in to a battle. It was probably expected as well. But rather than hurt the public – and our democratic culture – we answered every provocation with another offer to seek compromise. This was not always easy, faced with an opponent who was less interested in negotiating a contract than tearing down the very idea of collective bargaining – the idea that the majority who work should be able to enter in to dialogue with the minority who manage.

People rely on public services. This is even more true during times of economic uncertainty. As incomes drop and prices rise, community programs fill the gap. And as the job market slows, those programs also offer quality jobs with decent working conditions, keeping people working and money circulating, supporting families, and lessening the demand for social assistance.

This can’t happen if the people who deliver the services are put under attack and stripped of basic protections. They shouldn’t have to go to work every day with uncertainty. The public shouldn’t have to cross trenches just to get access to the services they need.

Spokespeople for the employer expressed a readiness for talks to set off a wider conflict with public service workers across the country, and perhaps eventually the private sector as well. I hope, especially as talks progress with the other three City of Toronto locals, that managers have had time to reflect since then on the alternative: that through negotiation, it is more than possible to find a balance between cost savings and quality employment.

In 2011, more than 450 CUPE locals negotiated contracts with employers across Canada. Of those, there were just three strikes and two lockouts. Spokespeople for the City of Toronto have tried to frame their approach as an economic necessity and political inevitability, but clearly, they were close to upsetting – whether intentionally or otherwise – a careful balance between workers, employers and communities that had been established over decades. All for the sake of ideology.

CUPE 416, by contrast, was making offers from the start: on wages, hours, scheduling and employment security. The employer, faced with an opponent who stubbornly refused to stop negotiating – and the fact that the public valued services enough to reward the people who deliver them – saw their own deadline become a double-edged sword. Abandoning their aggression, they granted a last minute extension, and finally settled down to make up for months of failing to bargain in just a few hours.

Less than 24 hours before the deadline, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday was printed as saying Toronto was “on a precipice.” It turned out we were just on the verge of an agreement. It’s worrisome that he couldn’t – and still can’t – tell the difference. But that’s the great thing about Toronto – there are many here who are willing to help him learn.



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