On a scale never before seen in Canada, the mayor of Toronto seeks to privatize city services and is taking on the largest public sector locals in Canada to do so. Counting down to a lockout February 5, city workers’ unions are scrambling to make their case to city residents.
Julia Barnett, a community health officer and steward in Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 79, says Mayor Rob Ford’s double-pronged attack on services and workers is seen as “extremely drastic” and “will set a precedent across the board nationally if Ford is able to gut our collective agreements.”
The right-wing mayor has already privatized snow removal and some garbage collection and wants to contract out far more work, including cleaning, childcare, care for the aged, and many parks and recreation programs.
As an example of what outsourcing would mean, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, predicts that city cleaners now making $22 an hour would be replaced by contractors paying minimum wage—$10.25, or less for the undocumented. Even unionized private cleaning companies in Toronto pay only $11 plus benefits.
“How will that help any neighborhood in Toronto?” Cartwright asked.
Humberto da Silva, a CUPE national rep at Local 416, said Ford wants to “destroy the fabric of Toronto with Tea Party policies.” The local represents outside workers such as garbage collectors, parking attendants, parks and rec staff, and paramedics.
The unions are hampered by memories of their last strike, in summer 2009, which ended with no love lost by city residents. The then-mayor was seeking far less in concessions, but unions did little to reach out and explain their side, and piles of garbage rotting in public parks left a bad odor, literally and symbolically.
David Kidd, a bargainer for Local 79, said, “One of the reasons this Tea Party mayor got elected in 2010 was because of our strike.”
He said the union made mistakes, but the mayor “opportunistically used that strike. He knew some members of the public were pissed off, so he put on a campaign around ‘fat cat public workers.’”
To enact his privatization agenda, the mayor must remove contract protections that say workers with more than 10 years’ seniority cannot be laid off in the event of contracting out. Instead, they may “redeploy”—bump lower-seniority workers.
Ford has poured scorn on this job-security clause. “His campaign slogan was ‘cut the gravy at city hall,’” Kidd said, “but it became apparent within six months his idea of gravy was public services.” Ford is also demanding a 10 percent cut to benefits and a host of other concessions and jobs or hours cuts.
“Ford’s goal is to blow away 7,000 city employee jobs during his term,” said Cartwright. The city employs about 50,000, union and non-union.
“He is on the cutting edge of the austerity agenda,” Cartwright said. “His key goal is to gut the collective agreement around contracting-out language. If he’s able to do that he will continue to outsource.”
COUNTDOWN TO A LOCKOUT
Under Ontario labor law, when either side decides negotiations are at an impasse, it can ask the Ministry of Labour for a “no-board report.” Once the report is issued, after 17 days the union may strike or the employer may lock workers out. Or the employer can unilaterally change the terms of employment, including wages and hours—daring the union to strike.
City contracts expired December 31. In the past, bargaining has continued for months past the deadline. But on January 12, the city asked for a no-board report for the outside workers, Local 416, while continuing to bargain with the others. The report was issued January 19. None of the locals has taken a strike vote.
STOPPED BUDGET CUTS
The contract fight came as the city council prepared to vote for a 10 percent cut to all departments. For months, community groups had been battling these cuts, which would have closed child care centers, student nutrition programs, homeless shelters, HIV and drug prevention programs, and recreation centers, as well as cutting back on public health services and contracting out cleaning jobs.
Local 416 estimated that the increased fees Ford was demanding would cost a family of four an extra $1,283 per year, including $1,000 more for school-based childcare.
But Ford was set back January 17 when the council backed away from $20 million of his cuts, on a 23-21 vote. Services were saved in libraries, pools, childcare, shelters, skating rinks, and more.
Barnett, whose 22,000-member local represents workers in public health, social services, homes for the aged, childcare, parks and recreation, and other departments (a majority women), said the victory “had everything to do with the grassroots and community organizing putting pressure on city councilors.” A rainy rally the night of the vote brought buses from neighborhoods, organized by the Stop the Cuts Coalition, and parents and children marched around city hall during the day. Barnett would like to see Local 79’s leaders encourage rank-and-file members to get active in their wards with this kind of movement.
Newly elected Local 79 President Tim Maguire has not been visible, saying he doesn’t want to negotiate in the media. Instead CUPE has taken out a million dollars’ worth of ads depicting public workers doing their jobs: “I care for Toronto.”
President Mark Ferguson of 6,000-member Local 416 has been more assertive, holding press conferences to challenge the city and encouraging members to talk to their city councilors. When the city started the lockout clock, Ferguson offered to save the city $25.5 million, to shore up services, by foregoing a wage increase for members for three years.
Paul Bilodeau, who came out of retirement to help the city unions in this struggle, said that after Ford locks the workers out, Local 416 will send picket teams to “do good deeds” such as shoveling walks for senior citizen centers or working with the homeless, to make up for some of the programs cut by the city.
Most visible were the 2,300 library workers, CUPE 4948, who marshaled prominent authors and more than 50,000 petition signers to fight cuts to the library system.
SURPLUS, NOT DEFICIT
Ford built the case in the media for the coming lockout by trumping up a $774 million city deficit. Sheila Block of Toronto’s Wellesley Institute think tank said the mayor’s figure was illusory, representing a typical starting point that is reduced through the budget-making process as both revenue and expenditure estimates are updated with more information.
The city now officially has a $154 million surplus—which Ford refuses to use, opting to keep it in reserve. “He threw around a big number long after it wasn’t believed,” Block said.
“Ford spent a lot of money on consultants and they did not find the waste he was counting on,” she noted. “Instead, they found that 97 percent of the budget was legislatively mandated or was traditional services like parks and rec.”
The irony is that Toronto is, in Cartwright’s words, “still the boomingest urban center” compared to U.S. cities, with 170 high-rise buildings under construction now.
Although it’s lost a big chunk of its manufacturing base, Toronto is not in as deep trouble as so many U.S. cities, Block said. Canada’s tighter regulation of banks meant the city didn’t experience the 2008 housing and financial sector crises.
David Kidd of Local 79 said, “Make no mistake: Ford’s attack is not about any deficit, it’s about shrinking government.”
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Neither Local 416 nor 79 has excelled at communicating with members, though they have put on some large meetings and “telephone town halls,” and held an all-locals meeting of 300 activists January 16.
Mike Sterling, a Local 79 steward at a community recreation center, said, “People are pretty scared—they never really recovered from the last fiasco, the six-week strike. They’re in a mood that is ready to believe just about anything they hear in the press.”
The Labour Council, which was inactive during the 2009 strike, is now promoting communication between city workers and other union members. Cartwright says CUPE members will be invited into other unions’ workplaces at lunchtime to explain their issues face to face. His hope is that employers will get nervous about the unaccustomed activity and prevail on Ford to call off the dogs.
The Labour Council has said that within a week of a lockout it will call a mass stewards assembly, as it did in 2009, when 1,600 public and private sector stewards turned out for a discussion of the attacks on workers. But that meeting saw no follow-up.
The city’s strategy appears to be orchestrated by the notorious anti-union law firm Hicks Morley, which is also involved in the Caterpillar lockout two hours west in London, Ontario (see page 10). Two years ago, Hicks Morley made skillful use of the intricacies of labor law to maneuver 8,000 Ontario community college teachers into heavy concessions on workload.
Da Silva is cautiously optimistic about getting the public on the workers’ side this time. He watched residents participate in focus groups set up by the union, noting that most want to extract some “pound of flesh” because of the headaches from the last strike.
“But the mayor has expended all his political capital on trying to make all these cuts,” Da Silva said. “People are now getting where we’re coming from—we’re actually the bulwark against his getting his full agenda.”