The High Cost of Cheap Labour

The High Cost of Cheap Labour

Union support can be the key to a mayoral victory. Members will put up signs, go door-to-door and get out the vote on election day. They’ll also expect payback come budget time

The High Cost of Cheap Labour
(Images: Firefighters by GetStock; Ford, Chow, Tory by QMI Agency)

Fire Station 424, on ­Runnymede in Bloor West Village, has been slated for closure since before amalgamation. It’s a pointless station, made redundant by three others nearby. Earlier this year, council finally voted to cut it from the budget, but they could not bring themselves to finish the job: they emptied Station 424 of its last remaining fire­fighters and fire truck, and then kept the building. As the local councillor, Sarah Doucette, told the media after the vote, “It will be a fire station without a truck.”

It will also be an absurdity. Why not sell the property and be done with it? The short answer is because that would upset the union. The 3,000-odd members of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association are opposed to any cuts and are hoping that a new, friendlier administration will revive the station and reinstate its service. It could happen. No candidate for mayor or council wants to be on the firefighters’ bad side in an election year.

Nor would they want to cross the Toronto Police Association, which represents the city’s 5,300 cops. Last June, council voted yet again to address the city’s use of paid-duty policing—that plum arrangement in which officers earn $68 per hour to stand guard at municipal road work sites and outdoor festivals. All told, the cops rake in roughly $25 million a year doing paid duty, and in many cases it’s a job that could easily be done by private security guards for a fraction of the cost. But the practice is so entrenched, it’s next to impossible for city staff to tackle it.

During election campaigns the politics of union support shifts into high gear, especially at the municipal level, where unions punch well above their weight. In the Toronto area, 23 per cent of all employees are unionized, yet union members will cast more than 23 per cent of all ballots, because their turnout, as a group, is higher than average. In a tight municipal race where voter turnout is usually less than 50 per cent, a union that can deliver its members’ votes to a single candidate can provide the margin of victory.

And the votes aren’t even the half of it. A well-organized union can also be eyes and ears on the street, reporting back on what people are saying, or on a rival candidate’s latest moves. For the first two-thirds of the campaign, this is what matters most. The race lasts 300 days and comes with a spending limit of $1.3 million per ­candidate—a long slog with most of the spending crammed into the last 45 days. Until then, volunteers keep ­campaigns afloat with the illusion of early momentum.

All of the city’s unions are experienced at campaign tasks, but firefighters execute them best of all. “If I need a ward canvassed in a hurry, I will ask the firefighters to do it if I can,” one campaign strategist told me. “They do it in the same manner in which they go about firefighting. They demonstrate tremendous organization, teamwork and efficiency. They are very polite and very public. They won’t stop until the job is finished and the paperwork they file will be impeccable. And they will do it all without instruction.” They are a campaign manager’s dream.

None of the city’s public sector unions have endorsed individual candidates yet—they typically wait until the final weeks to offer public support—but their umbrella organization has. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council—which includes, among others, CUPE Locals 416, 79 and 1 (the city’s outside, inside, and Hydro workers) and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 (TTC ­workers)—is supporting Olivia Chow, whose platform includes no further contracting out of garbage collection and no privatization of Toronto Hydro. She also has the declared support of the Ontario Federation of Labour and the undeclared support of Local 416, which includes solid waste staff, and the firefighters, who feel beset by continuing attempts to claw back their budget and want Chow to make it stop. Police Association president Mike McCormack says his organization will not endorse any candidate publicly; the TPA supported Tory in 2003 but hasn’t made a public endorsement since. That doesn’t mean his members won’t know who to support: like many other unions, the TPA will interview candidates, assess their platforms and communicate its findings to its members.

There’s time yet for alliances to shift. A major blunder or a precipitous dip in the polls by a frontrunner (à la Barbara Hall in 2003) could send union leaders scurrying in search of a winner, so candidates keep the doors open just in case. Rob Ford never misses a chance to butter firefighters up. “They put their lives on the line day in and day out, and they don’t know if they are coming home to their families,” he said in the spring. “They’re heroes.” John Tory is careful not to alienate them either. Nick Kouvalis, the campaign strategist who ran Ford’s 2010 campaign and now helps run Tory’s, did consulting work for the Toronto firefighters’ association, which makes him perfectly placed to broker a deal for Tory should Chow’s campaign falter.

Meanwhile, the city’s emergency services budgets—police, fire and ambulance, whose paramedics are represented by Local 416—are both extravagant and poorly managed. In 2003 those three services cost Toronto residents $1 billion. This year the total bill is $1.7 billion, and it’s eating up an ever-larger portion of property tax revenues. In 2003 emergency services commandeered 33 cents of every property-tax dollar. Today it stands at 38 cents, at a time when Toronto needs more money for things like parks, public health, debt charges and especially transit. It’s a big increase, and it’s basically hush money. Candidates seldom publicly question these budgets in order to curry political support from unions. In exchange, the budgets continue to bloat.

It wouldn’t be hard for a determined mayor to find cheaper ways to deliver emergency services. For example, there’s lots of needless duplication between the fire and ambulance services, both of which respond to medical dispatches. The big red trucks are often first on the scene, but ambulances have the gurneys and much of the gear, so the firefighters often serve as nothing more than pleasant company until the paramedics show up. What’s the point? Why not just have a single, exceptional first-responder service?

For the purposes of this campaign, it’d be a major victory just to get Fire Station 424 off the books once and for all. David Soknacki, who knew from the outset that his long-shot path to victory would never come by way of the union locals, is the only top mayoral candidate calling for a review of emergency services. The rest of them, unless they speak up, are willing to keep paying the hush money.