Mar 12

On labour, the Ford administration proves quietly effective – so why doesn’t anyone care?

Early last week, Toronto’s library workers went on strike. Everyone assumed they would. The city and the library have been at each other’s throats for much of the last year – through budget cuts and branch closures and threats of service reductions. The animosity between the library union and the Ford administration never quite got to the point of outright profanities and name calling, but it got pretty damn close.

If you had asked me on the weekend, I would have predicted a long and drawn out work stoppage. Libraries are vitally important to the city – especially when it comes to youth, seniors and low-income people – but their absence is less likely to cause an emotional response than, for example, a lack of garbage pick-up or reduced EMS response times. The city’s negotiators had a lot of breathing room on this one.

Which is why this, as reported by the Toronto Star’s Liam Casey, comes as a bit of a surprise:

Toronto Public Library workers have reached a tentative deal with the library board, according to its union.

The workers went on strike March 19, closing all 98 branches.

CUPE spokesperson Cim Nunn said the two sides have been meeting since the strike began and reached a deal through “long, hard work.”

via Toronto library strike: Union and board reach tentative deal to end strike | Toronto Star.

And, lo and behold, it looks like the city has found common ground with much of Local 79, the city’s inside workers. Yes, there’s still work to be done with part of that union, but we’re worlds away from speculation last summer that said the mayor would jump straight to a lockout, damn the torpedoes.

Like with the out-of-nowhere deal signed with the outside workers at CUPE 416 last month, these seemingly quick resolutions have got to be seen as a victory for the Ford administration. Contrary to the expectations of a lot of people who claim to have their finger on the pulse of things down at City Hall – including, um, me – the mayor has done reasonably well with labour, wringing the kind of concessions he promised without declaring bloody war on the public sector.

The unions deserve credit too, of course. What we’re seeing now – speedy resolutions to labour issues, a willingness to concede on certain sticking points – is a tacit admission from union leadership in this city that they really screwed things up in 2009, when workers went on strike for 40 days before ultimately conceding and accepting a deal. The public sector seems to know that they need to rebuild political support. And so they’re being conciliatory — often preemptively so. As far as workable long-term strategies go, this is the best the unions have.

Still, if Ford’s been pretty smart on the labour file, he’s been totally inept at turning that intelligence to his political advantage. While Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and the negotiating team at City Hall have been knocking out deals with various Locals, Ford’s been tilting at transit windmills and repeating the word “subways” so often he’s probably broken an obscure Guinness record for word repetition.

With the subways/LRT debate taking all the headlines, Ford’s done little to attach himself to the negotiations. Instead of holding press conferences and giving interviews trumpeting his ability to wring cost-saving concessions from city workers and open the door for the kind of contracting-out he promised in his campaign, the mayor has been almost invisible in this process.

You could make the argument that the mayor’s invisibility has been a blessing for the city’s negotiating team. Ford’s not particularly well-liked by a lot of union members, and his comments – followed, inevitably, by his brother’s comments – could serve only to add fuel to fire. The Fords have an uncanny ability to make any situation worse just by talking about it.

The other side of the coin, however, says that the mayor is a politician who’s been taking a beating lately. He desperately needs some checkmarks in his “win” column. These labour negotiations could provide that. Yes, it makes sense to maintain some space between the mayor and labour negotiations, but there’s a fertile middle ground between invisibility and overbearing involvement that would still allow Ford’s star to shine in the wake of signed deals.

The only real explanation that makes sense to me is one that harkens back to an underlying theme through Ford’s mayoralty: the mayor is simply understaffed. He doesn’t have the resources in his office to effectively strategize on more than one issue at a time – they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. His advisors are hilariously ill-equipped to effectively manage policy and communication at the level demanded by Ford’s position. They’re obviously lousy at marshalling support at council and they don’t seem to have many cards to play with the media either, except for with a few names at the Toronto Sun and on the broadcast side. Even simple tasks like ordering business cards or keeping up with municipal conflict of interest law have led to major (and public) screw-ups.

But, hey, they are pretty good at getting back to constituents who have problems relating to sizeable piles of dirt.

Ford’s office has copped to the issue somewhat – there’s money for a new position in the mayor’s office in the 2012 budget. But that may be too little too late. Change needed to start soon after the Port Lands debacle. There have been at least a half-dozen debacles since then, with no sign of improvement. Meanwhile, Ford still lists slashing his own office budget as a major achievement.

But back to the labour issue: signed deals with all the city’s major unions would stand as an undeniable success for the Ford administration. But it doesn’t amount to much if his office isn’t able to effectively communicate that success – and if  it all gets drowned out by the noise and controversy of other things.

Feb 12

Labour Daze: work stoppage seems likely as city moves to force strike

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.

via Toronto labour fight: As lockout date looms, CUPE reports ‘significant progress’ | Toronto Star.

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.

via Take new deal or we’ll impose it, city tells workers | Toronto Star.

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.

What Next? 

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?