Q&A: Mark Ferguson, the trash-talking Buddhist at the head of CUPE Local 416

Q&A: Mark Ferguson, the trash-talking Buddhist at the head of CUPE Local 416

When he wins, the public hates him. When he loses, his members hate him.

As CUPE 416 president, you spent 16 weeks locked in heated negotiations with Team Ford over the new outdoor workers contract. How hostile did it get?
The city’s bargaining team told me they were going to impose their terms of employment if we didn’t reach an agreement. I ended up breaking down in tears, which has happened twice in my career: before the garbage strike in 2009, and now.

You’re a Buddhist. Did that help?
Absolutely. My bargaining committee would be arguing away, and I would lie down in a quiet room and meditate for five or 10 minutes to clear my thoughts.

In an email exchange with an angry union member after the ratification, you called Team Ford “motherfuckers.” That doesn’t sound very Buddhistic.
It was in the heat of the moment, and I apologized. But I don’t apologize for trying to get members worked up about what this administration is doing to the city.

How much time does the job of union president leave for family?
Over the past year, I was home for dinner maybe one night a week. My wife and I broke up about two months ago.

I’m sorry.
Thanks, but it’s for the best. I’ll be spending more time with my two girls.

As the spokesperson for 6,500 city workers, you’ve become a lightning rod for the public’s anger over unions. How much does that affect you?
Actually, people have been congratulating me, whereas in the midst of the garbage strike in 2009, I was the subject of name calling when I walked down the street.

Your dad was a principal, your mom a nurse. When you were growing up, was it a given that you’d become a union guy?
No. In fact, when I was younger I bought into the media portrayal of union workers as lazy and uninterested.

Many people would agree with that characterization. Rob Ford was elected to clean up the city’s financial mess. Do you sympathize with that mandate?
I recognize that the city has long-standing fiscal challenges, but the mayor has exaggerated and accelerated the financial crisis to suit his neo-conservative agenda.

Have you ever met Ford socially?
At a fundraiser some time ago somebody had the idea that they should put us at the same table. He sat down and destroyed the conversation for the night.

If you were him, would you raise taxes?
Yes. If you ask Torontonians whether they’d like to see services pared or taxes increased, the majority vote for a tax hike.

How do you justify a tax hike to a struggling single mom when your members get $900 for laser eye surgery?
The eye surgery is an efficiency measure so that employees don’t have to go back for yearly prescription renewals.

What I’m getting at is that CUPE’s benefits package seems lavish.
I don’t believe that getting your dental, drugs and eyewear covered is lavish. I think that should be a minimum standard for all employees.

Even if it’s unaffordable?
People shouldn’t be put into poverty if they come up against debilitating circumstances. Our government is obligated to make sure people have adequate coverage.

To ratify the “jobs for life” provision, which now kicks in at 15 years instead of 10, you had to ask some members to vote for their own potential axing. How did that go over at the union hall?
It was very unfortunate. We drafted a deal that made the most sense for the largest number of people. The alternative would have been far worse.

Some CUPE members are calling for your head. What will you do if they turf you?
Go back to being a paramedic, be­come a consultant, or even run for council and give Giorgio Mammoliti a run for his money.