If councillor Case Ootes gets his way, a contract recently hammered out between the city of Toronto and local firefighters will be scrapped and a year's worth of intense labour negotiations will have to start all over again. "The proposal that is before us is way out of line in terms of what is appropriate," Ootes declared when council met two weeks ago. It was expected that council would ratify the tentative agreement reached by city management and the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association on January 13.
"There are provisions in the proposal that are far too rich," the councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) fumed. "We have to be very careful as to what we agree to and make sure that it doesn't set a precedent for future negotiations."
As it happened, Ootes's vehement objections to the retroactive five-year pact covering the period between January 1, 2002, and December 31, 2006, prevented it from being approved at council's last regular session. So a special meeting has been called for today (February 12) in hopes of making a decision on the deal, details of which have so far been debated only behind closed doors.
Now, it's always nice to see a politician being so cost-conscious. But Ootes is being rather disingenuous when he raises concerns about the effect the new firefighters' contract (one that's already been endorsed by Chief William Stewart) could have on future settlements with other municipal unions. Truth be told, the precedent that led to the proposal in question was set last year when council ratified a collective agreement with the Toronto Police Association.
As deputy to former mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman, Ootes helped direct negotiations that made the local constabulary the best paid in the country. Funny, but I don't recall him squawking about that deal being "too rich" or "out of line in terms of what is expected by the public." And neither does Councillor Brian Ashton.
"It was the Lastman-Ootes regime that created this situation when they gave in to police demands," the veteran City Hall rep for Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest) said earlier this week. "If they wanted to draw a line in the sand, they should have had their battle with the police, but they were afraid to do that."
What's at issue here aren't the basic terms of the proposed collective agreement with the firefighters. These call for an annual 3.5 per cent salary hike going back to the start of 2002 and for the next three years. That's pretty much standard across the civil service right now. The issue that has Ootes in a terrible tizzy is something called "recognition pay," which would give senior firefighters wage increases over and above the standard raise.
According to reliable sources, a blaze-battler with more than 17 years of service would receive wage increases of 4, 5 and 6 per cent each of the next three years. A firefighter who has spent more than 23 years on the job would get salary hikes of 5, 7 and 9 per cent during the same period.
This proposal mirrors the "retention bonus" that was written into the cops' last contract in hopes of stopping officers trained at Toronto's expense from quitting the city force to take jobs in other municipalities in and around the GTA.
"Why is it that a cop can climb the salary ladder faster than a firefighter?" Ashton asked. "If the cops are doing that well, why shouldn't the firefighters be treated likewise? Sure, it's a huge financial issue, but there's also a principle at stake."
Councillor Olivia Chow agrees. She says it's interesting to see Ootes making so much noise now even though negotiations with the firefighters began when he was second-in-command to Lastman.
"The previous administration set the guidelines, set the percentages and set the entire tone," the Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) pol notes. She says Ootes's protest would carry a lot more weight if he'd been as diligent with the police contract as he's intent on being with the firefighters' deal.
Councillor Kyle Rae goes a step further. He maintains that Ootes and ally Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (both of whom, incidentally, were endorsed by the Toronto Police Association during last fall's municipal election campaign) are simply out to embarrass Mayor David Miller, who had the backing of the firefighters.
"That's a good way to put it," Ashton says. "The Lastman troops are an endangered species on council, and they're fighting back, trying to put the blame for this contract on Miller."
He argues that rejecting the firefighters' agreement now would do serious damage to morale in the service. It could lead to an expensive arbitration exercise that the city would almost certainly lose based on the precedent-setting police contract.
But Ootes doesn't buy that argument. He calls it a "cop-out" and suggests councillors who believe an arbitrator would ultimately support the tentative agreement aren't acting in the public interest.
"This council needs to take a stand," Ootes says. He maintains that an arbitrator would "pay attention if the city of Toronto decides it's simply not going to roll over and accept" the proposed settlement.
Apparently, he's already forgotten the stand he and Lastman took against CUPE Locals 79 and 416 during the summer of 2002. It led to a messy strike that only came to an end when the provincial government stepped in to order binding arbitration. The report from the arbitrator (a former deputy labour minister in a past Ontario Tory government) sided with the unions and chastised the city for poisoning the working environment.
Ootes might want to find a copy of that document and give it a good read.