City Trashes Union

Rating: NNNNNwhile toronto councillors havespent the week squabbling over how much to hike taxes, local union leaders and city labour.

Rating: NNNNN

while toronto councillors havespent the week squabbling over how much to hike taxes, local union leaders and city labour negotiators have been meeting in a supposed effort to avoid interruption of the very services central to the fractious budget debate.By all accounts, the talks have not been going well. In fact, a massive strike or lockout now appears almost inevitable given the intractable impasse over what job security and wage provisions should be part of a new collective agreement.

Indeed, the work stoppage could come before residential property tax bills — with 4.6 per cent tacked onto the bottom line — start landing in mailboxes around town.

The quarrelsome mood has been created in great part by the council majority’s support for the principles of alternative service delivery — aka privatization and contracting out.

The general consensus among municipal employees, inside and out, is that the city is determined to eliminate their jobs and they’ve got nothing to lose by going on strike in an attempt to halt the scheme.

“We hope we can negotiate a deal that’s satisfactory to our employees and to the citizens of this city,” is the official line offered by Case Ootes, the deputy mayor. He characterizes recent negotiations as “serious,” but acknowledges that “at this point there have been no concrete developments.”

And there’s growing consensus on both sides that there won’t be. Reliable City Hall sources say Mayor Mel Lastman’s aides informally polled councillors last week to see if enough politicians would be available next week for a “special” meeting.

The plan was to have the politicians approve making an application to the provincial Labour Ministry for a “no board report.” Such a move would indicate that a negotiated settlement is impossible and begin a 17-day countdown before the protagonists find themselves in legal strike or lockout positions.

“We want to be prepared for whatever needs to happen,” the municipal insider advised. But too many politicians had plans for spring break that didn’t include an extraordinary appearance in the council chamber. Not after spending five days there in often acrimonious budget deliberations.

That budget contained no obvious provision for the staff wage increases that Lastman, budget chief David Shiner and the deputy mayor have consistently argued the city can’t afford. A 1 per cent pay hike would cost about $25 million, and that would mean raising taxes another 2.5 per cent this year.

“The cupboard is bare, and everybody knows the cupboard is bare,” Ootes says. “Hopefully, the union has an understanding of that.”

But on Monday the city’s chief administrative officer also told council that the municipality has more than 100 reserve accounts filled with cash, which don’t show up anywhere in the 2002 financial plan.

“It’s close to a billion (dollars),” Shirley Hoy estimated when she was asked to tabulate the reserve balance.

That information had some councillors asking why taxes have to be raised at all this year.

“That’s a huge amount of money,” said Mario Silva, the councillor for Ward 18 (Davenport). Although provincial legislation restricts how some of that money can be spent, Silva maintained there’s still a large pool the city can access.

“We, as a caring city, have to make sure that our programs are protected, and we can do that without raising property taxes,” he argued.

Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, the councillor for Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park) agreed. “There is money elsewhere,” he told Hoy. “You know it and I know it.”

The unions seem to know it, too.

“I don’t believe the city is broke,” says Brian Cochrane, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 416, representing 6,500 outside workers and 2,300 library staff. “They’re not interested in negotiating. They’re only interested in ramming a settlement down our throats.’

Cochrane took his local to the brink of a walkout in late 1999 before it settled on a three-year deal with a 7.37 per cent wage hike and acceptable job protection.

A few months later, Local 79 went on a brief strike before accepting a similar package. Both deals expired on December 31. The pact Toronto Transit employees received after several days off the job in early 1999 expires at the end of March.

City officials close to the contract negotiations concede they are hard-pressed not to make concessions on pay “because the settlements in municipalities all around us are at 3 per cent per year for three years.” The fact that Toronto councillors recently gave themselves a similar raise in salary means “it’s going to be tough to make a different case for our unions,” one management source conceded.

Money is not the biggest obstacle to a deal, however. The impending privatization of municipal services and the lack of progress in harmonizing employee wages across the amalgamated city of Toronto are much bigger issues with Locals 79 and 416. And it’s increasingly evident that the municipal corporation has no intention of giving anything away at the bargaining table in these critical areas.

The city knows its unyielding hard line will almost certainly trigger a strike, and it’s widely believed that management has fast-tracked the negotiating process. (It was the city that called for the current “conciliation” exercise in a bid to spark a quick withdrawal of services.)

Cochrane has heard the rumours that Lastman expects everything to be over and done with before the Pope comes to town this summer to celebrate World Youth Days with his Roman Catholic followers. There’s no way the local powers that be want the pontiff’s motorcade driving along weed-infested boulevards strewn with disembowelled sacks of rotting garbage.

“They want everything to be cleaned up and manicured for His Holiness,” contends the head of Local 416. If the unions don’t conform to the appointed schedule, the city can always lock their members out.

And, strike or lockout, the employees will be expected to pay a hefty price to get back in. The city may try to ease the pain by offering the unions just a little bit more financially. But the money will only be there if a big reduction in job security is the other part of the bargain.

Union members insist the administration is underestimating the resolve of its employees.

Over at CUPE Local 79 headquarters, where 17,000 inside employees send their union dues, the executive has already received an 88 per cent strike mandate from the membership. “The support we’ve received for a strike is unprecedented,” says president Ann Dembinski. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“It’s going to be a long strike,” predicts one sub-management professional who is also a member of Local 79. “There’s a unity between the two locals like I’ve never seen before.”

Relations between the inside and outside workers’ union reps were best described as antagonistic during the megacity’s first three years of existence. The two locals fought tooth and nail for domination over the municipal labour scene. This worked to the city’s advantage last time out because it knew a total walkout was impossible with so many internecine battles underway.

But changes in leadership have led to major improvements in communications between the two locals, and strategic planning has apparently become very much a joint effort.

“We’re solid,” says Cochrane.

“Cooperation between our two locals is excellent,” Dembinski affirms.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five. The countdown has begun.

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