Who is more deluded: Rob Ford or the labour unions?

Who is more deluded: Rob Ford or the labour unions?

Rob Ford’s first—and nastiest—fight will be with organized labour. The unions are saying “bring it”

(Illustration: Steve Brodner) 

The garbage strike of 2009 wasn’t just about trash. That summer, labour sparked a fuse that would crackle and sizzle for the next year and a half, lighting Rob Ford’s path to mayoral victory. The fuse is still burning, and the expected detonation has the potential not only to release organized labour’s grip on city hall, but to force an overhaul of labour’s relationship with employers across the country.

There was virtually no public sympathy for the strike from the outset. Many of us already knew that city workers enjoyed a fortress of entitlements, including guaranteed wage increases and ironclad job security. The sticking point of the strike—preserving the right to bank unused sick days and collect on them upon retirement—was where outsiders felt entitlement crossed over to obscenity. Especially during a recession. Organized labour, once the white knight of the downtrodden, had become the establishment itself: a cartel of unaccountable elites that could hold the city hostage at their discretion.

It didn’t help that David Miller had been waltzing with the unions since first running for mayor in 2003. Through two elections, he’d received the political endorsement and resources (both human and financial) of the powerful Toronto and York Region Labour Council, an umbrella group for hundreds of unions, including the two striking locals with whom he was now negotiating. You had to wonder whose side he was really on.

After 39 days and much posturing, a deal was struck that eviscerated Miller’s already diminishing credibility. Among other sundry gifts, senior workers could continue to bank sick days through a grandfather clause, and all workers received scheduled pay increases totalling six per cent over three years. The entire event felt like kabuki theatre, wherein Miller played the tough guy as he winked at his buddies across the table.

When it was over, Mark Ferguson, president of the Toronto Civic Employees Union (TCEU) Local 416, and Ann Dembinski, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 79, emerged from the ashes of battle to blithely announce that the strike had set labour relations back decades. To most Torontonians, the irony was thick: the last thing taxpayers cared about at that moment was how to keep the unions happy.

Canada’s labour laws and union protections are so strong as to be globally unique. We live in the only country where a person can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. That’s understood to be a rights violation everywhere else organized labour exists, including all of Europe. Here, union members must pay their dues, and a decade of polling suggests that a super-majority of them are opposed to the idea of their money being used to fund political action and activism. According to John Mortimer of LabourWatch, an employee rights group, no other country allows a unionized worker to be fired from their job should they refuse to fund political activities. As such, it’s tough to know whether labour leaders in Toronto really do have the support of the majority of workers they represent. Rob Ford is no doubt hoping they don’t.

Ford’s mayoral campaign—aggressive, populist and startlingly sparse on detail—was, of course, all about saving Torontonians heaps of money. And there is only one way to get that done: dramatically renegotiate or void union contracts. City hall’s largest line item is the cost of organized labour. So Ford’s platform centred on two promises: eliminating the city’s fair wage policy and privatizing garbage collection. Those two things alone are understood by the leaders of organized labour as a full-on frontal assault on their legal and political standing here and across the country. If the relevant unions lose one or both of these battles, it will change the economic landscape for good. As a result, union leaders and their allies on city council are already preparing to defend themselves.

So when will the battle begin? Many believe that Ford will act as quickly as he can, while voters still feel the pulse of their decision and his mandate is strongest. His promise to eliminate the fair wage policy—with an eye to generating savings of $80 million a year—would be a logical place to start, assuming our new mayor has the stomach for it and can prove the savings are there to be had.

Implemented in 1893, the fair wage policy is designed to ensure that city workers are paid at a set rate that reflects industry standards, which, in the case of Toronto, is tied to the unionized wage, whether the worker is unionized or not. Ford’s rationale for eliminating the policy is simple: if you don’t have to pay a union wage, and there is greater competition for available work, the cost of bids will come down. But the fair wage policy has greater symbolic significance, as the cornerstone on which labour’s foundation was built. If it goes, unions across the spectrum will feel under siege. Labour-friendly councillors say the unions are necessary to not only guarantee fair wages, but also safe workplaces and qualitative assurances for taxpayers. Clearly Ford believes that the days of worker exploitation are long gone, and that the free market will take care of competitive wages, while federal and provincial labour codes will take care of things like worker safety.

To eliminate the city policy, Ford would need to get a vote through council, and there’s no guarantee on that score. Even Councillor Doug Holyday, a fiscal conservative who endorsed Ford for mayor, doesn’t believe in killing the fair wage policy. He thinks it should be amended so that wage protections fall in line with those of the provincial and federal governments. Assuming Ford is able to lock up 23 of the 44 votes on council to get a resolution passed, he’d probably still need the support of Queen’s Park. Dalton McGuinty currently enjoys the backing of many of the trades that would be affected by the policy’s elimination, and is expected to protect essential allies heading into October’s election.

The Central Ontario Building Trades (COBT), which represents approximately 60,000 construction workers in the City of Toronto alone, has shown its intention to fight for the fair wage policy through resolute action. In the final days of the mayoral election, it abandoned its long-standing support of Joe Pantalone in favour of George Smitherman, who was perceived as the only candidate who might beat Ford and save the policy.

The new mayor’s second big battle, for the right to bear our garbage, will be no easier than the first. Local 416’s contract, which expires on December 31, 2011, includes provisions that guarantee, as Holyday puts it, “unbelievable job security.” If any permanent Local 416 workers lose their jobs to a new contractor, the city is legally obliged to find them a different job of equal pay, thereby eliminating any savings realized. That job security promises to be the major obstacle in 416’s upcoming contract negotiations with the city.

And here’s where things get interesting. If Ford is serious about changing the way city hall works with the unions, this is his opportunity to do it. Months before the current contract expires, he should openly make his case to council, the unions and the public. He’ll go to the table with a significant advantage if he takes a lead in the PR campaign and keeps taxpayers onside. He needs to be vocal about his intention to open tender on our trash collection and appear immutable on the issue of job security. Bay Street labour lawyer Howard Levitt believes that in order to show he means business, Ford should even start preparing replacement workers in plain sight. “This is not something you can accomplish by stealth,” he says.

Should Local 416 not concede through negotiations or conciliation—and it’s highly unlikely they would—Ford will already have Torontonians prepped for a lengthy strike, with the unions cast in the role of the villain. In accordance with the Labour Relations Act, 17 days after negotiations break down, Ford will be free to bring in replacement workers and open the door to other bidders. All of these tactics will signal to the union that Ford is playing hardball, which might draw them back to the bargaining table. If not, the labour unrest we’re about to see will make the strike of 2009 look like a schoolyard tussle.

A former senior political advisor to the Ministry of Labour at Queen’s Park believes that some union leaders are spoiling for such a fight, as they think it will re-engage their base, fill their coffers and re-ignite a debate about good Canadian jobs. With approximately 150,000 union members in the City of Toronto alone, organized labour is more than capable of defending itself. If all the unions rise up in solidarity with Local 416, we could see widespread strikes of the scope of France’s infamous manifestations, paralyzing the city and the economy.

Such an outcome may seem far-fetched, but it’s a scenario that Ford should be prepared for if he’s committed to making the city solvent and livable for the long term. The garbage contract is only the beginning: it would set a precedent for future contract negotiations as each union’s collective agreement expires.

Doug Holyday was the mayor of Etobicoke pre-amalgamation. In 1995, he saw an opportunity to rewrite his municipality’s relationship with organized labour and designed and delivered a process that allows private contractors and unions to bid for the right to pick up his constituents’ trash, even offering up a performance bond—a significant chunk of dough—that would be forfeited in the event of service disruption. There hasn’t been a strike since. Holyday seems proud to note that a union—the Teamsters—won the initial seven-year contract in Etobicoke, so the process wasn’t about being anti-union.

For now, Local 416’s Mark Ferguson seems resolute. He rejects the viability of Ford’s plans to contract out city services and believes the new mayor is simply playing politics. “Politicians promise a lot of things they can’t deliver on,” he says. The usually edgy leader, however, is almost too quick to add that he’s hopeful his local can work with Ford, and that members “don’t want to pick a fight.” Maybe that choice is no longer theirs to make.