So much for solidarity forever and all those other soulful tunes organized labour types used to sing whenever their livelihoods came under attack. These days, it's more like Every Local For Itself as private sector unions with electrical connections aggressively try to wrestle work away from their supposed brothers and sisters in the public realm.
Relations between the two groups hit a notable low recently when an organization backed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 353 characterized the leaders of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1 as "dim bulbs" and worse.
Why the derogatory remarks? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the Hands Off Our Lights (HOOL) coalition that includes the Greater Toronto Electrical Contractors Association , IBEW Local 353 and other unionized trade groups hired the "strategic counsellors" (aka lobbyists) at Fasken Martineau (the firm where Guy Giorno, one-time chief of staff to worker-friendly former premier Mike Harris, now does his thing) to do public relations on its behalf.
But mainly it's because the CUPE folks support the controversial city sale of our street lighting and power poles to their employer, Toronto Hydro, for a yet-to-be-determined price somewhere between $40 million and $60 million.
"The sale makes sense," says Bruno Silano, president of the CUPE local that represents more than 1,200 Toronto Hydro workers. "The sale makes the best of a bad situation. The city needs the money to make its budget ends meet, and the asset will be kept under public control."
But HOOL spokesperson Bob O'Donnell, a member of the contractors association, argues that Toronto Hydro is not a public utility. "It's a private company that just happens to have one shareholder: the city of Toronto," he says.
"We oppose privatization. We don't want the street lights sold to the private sector."
But they do want the private sector (i.e., themselves and their unionized employees) to do the maintenance and repair work that CUPE members are doing now and will continue to do once the light pole sale is finalized later this year.
"At the end of the day, if the city owns the lights and tenders out [the maintenance contract], it gets competitive pricing," O'Donnell maintains. "We think we bring better pricing and do a better job."
But Silano claims the HOOL gang is blowing smoke. He points to a pilot project now wrapping up in Scarborough in which a private company was given the street lighting contract for three years. The work has ended up costing the city $200,000 more annually than would have been charged by the Toronto Hydro crews that do the work elsewhere in town.
O'Donnell dismisses the comparison and takes another shot at CUPE. "They just can't provide competitive services," he says. "Our view, in the long run, is that the costs of this [sale] are going to be higher and cost taxpayers more down the road."
And if the city is so quick to sell its light poles, what's to say it won't one day decide to sell Toronto Hydro or merge it with other GTA utilities? Energy costs could go through the roof and equipment would not be kept up to current standards, O'Donnell warns.
Back and forth we go: Silano wonders why HOOL has decided to make the street lights an issue four months after the sale was approved by council; O'Donnell counters that his group didn't know what the deal was at the time and that it's still pretty difficult to understand now. Which is why you hire a lobbyist to make your pitch to councillors in hopes they'll kill the sale before it's finalized in the fall.
According to budget chief David Soknacki, there's virtually no chance of that happening.
"Was it perfect? Absolutely not," he says of the sale, which his budget advisory committee presented to council when the city found itself with insufficient provincial government funding to balance its books.
But, the Ward 43 (Scarborough East) councillor adds, "it was the best way for the taxpayers and the workers not to be put through a sudden wrenching pain."
And even if council were to change its mind about the arrangement at this late date, Soknacki figures there's no way unionized private contractors would get the street lighting contract over public sector workers.
"This council has a strong aversion to contracting out," the budget chief advises. "I can show you my scars."