Because politics in Toronto aren’t already heated and chaotic enough, we got word today that the city is seemingly on course to head straight into a work stoppage situation with its outside worker union. The labour disruption — which could take the form of a lockout or a strike or some kind of work-to-rule thing — could start as soon as Sunday. (Updated for clarity: the union hasn’t scheduled a strike vote so they’re not going to take any immediate action this weekend. We could start to see movement on Sunday, however, depending on the terms the city imposes.)
The tenor of the negotiations between the city and the union changed quickly. It was only yesterday that things looked pretty good, as reported by the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale:
Less than 72 hours before a lockout or strike becomes legal, the leader of the union representing Toronto’s outdoor municipal workers is reporting “significant progress toward successfully concluding an agreement.”
Mark Ferguson, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 416, made the optimistic assessment in a written statement Thursday afternoon.
But then, earlier this morning, we got word that any progress between the two sides had been torpedoed after the city let the union know they’d be unilaterally imposing new contract terms.
The Star’s David Rider:
The Mayor Rob Ford administration has moved aggressively against CUPE Local 416, tabling 11th-hour demands it says will be imposed on 6,000 city workers Sunday whether their union accepts them or not.
The threat — very unusual in the public sector and regarded as a way to get workers to accept an offer or force them to strike — pushes Toronto to the very brink of a work stoppage this weekend by outside workers.
Bruce Anderson, the city’s executive director of human resources, told reporters Friday the demands, suddenly tabled Thursday night after months of bargaining, will be unilaterally imposed at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.
The city’s threat basically amounts to this: we’re going to start messing with your jobs. Security provisions will be tossed out and benefit plans changed. The city has even threatened to stop collecting union dues via their payroll system, something which seems extraordinary petty.
The goal seems to be to provoke a strike from the union. The city — and Rob Ford, whose office has a clear hand in these negotiations — seemingly holds the belief that a labour disruption is inevitable. A negotiated settlement is out of the question. (If you believe rumours, a negotiated settlement was always out of the question.) And because a lockout imposed by the city might build public sympathy for the union, forcing a strike is the preferable solution from the city’s perspective.
David Dorey, a professor at York U, has a good run-down of some of the technical details on his blog.
A prolonged labour disruption raises a lot of questions. For instance: how exactly does this help Rob Ford with his mandate to improve customer service across the city? The guy was elected at least partially because of residual anger and bad-feelings stemming from the 2009 strike — and so he responds by taking the city into another one just like it?
Also, back in 2009, Ford was a big proponent of provincial back-to-work legislation as a means to end the dispute. He surely won’t advocate the same this time of around, should the union strike. Why the change of heart?
But really, presuming some kind of work stoppage takes hold next week, everything turns into a PR battle. The union will have to effectively portray themselves as victims of management that never wanted to negotiate in good faith. They’ll have to convince the public that the city always wanted a strike. The city, on the other hand, will talk about how the Ford administration has a strong mandate to rein in costs and take back control of organized labour. They’ll say that the union is being unreasonable.
Don’t kid yourself: public opinion will probably fall squarely on the side of the mayor. In fact, this is undoubtedly a chance for Ford to rebuild some of the popularity he squandered over the last year. There is a strong unshakeable belief amongst many Toronto residents that public sector workers are unfairly overpaid for the work they do.
The union isn’t starting from a strong position. They’ve got some ground to make up.
The Bigger Picture
Meanwhile back at the ranch, I’ve got to wonder if any of this will prove to be worth it. These labour negotiation wheels were set in motion primarily because the mayor wants to contract out a number of city services to the private sector, and that can’t be done with the job security provisions under the current collective agreement.
But is going to all this trouble to chase those contracting-out opportunities even worth it? Are there really enough money-saving opportunities that a prolonged and bitter labour dispute is justified? Wouldn’t it better to pursue a long-term approach, balancing the current collective agreement with contracting-out opportunities that can actually demonstrate value and customer service?
Does it really make sense to let garbage pile up on our streets for months without knowing the answers to these questions?