Think of the garbage strike as the next provincial election, but with more cologne. Smiling, freshly shaven Ernie Eves plays former preem Bill Davis, while the NDP, fresh from oblivion, averts disaster and a nasty internal split to snag sudden and surprising public respect. Certainly, the NDP's recovery from its near-death experience was a summer shocker. One can hardly conjure up a bigger political jam than being responsible for prolonging a warm-weather strike that keeps swimming pools closed and garbage piling up.
And if that wasn't enough to make any politico squirm, add former Sunshine Boy and class-struggle socialist Peter Kormos as chief party negotiator. One can only imagine the funk the three NDP MPPs from Toronto were in minutes before the strike ended, when they were cornered in the legislature by a pack of voracious reporters. There was Marilyn Churley, the colour drained from her face, standing beside a funereal looking Rosario Marchese and an edgy Michael Prue.
"You're being vilified on radio talk shows," one reporter pointed out.
"Are you prepared to hold this up for two weeks?" asked another.
Prue replied, "I have never heard a single New Democrat say that it's going to take two weeks (to pass back-to-work legislation ending the strike)."
To which the obvious reportorial riposte was, "Is Peter Kormos representing you?"
"There are nine of us," Prue responded. "We each have one vote, as does Peter Kormos."
An hour later, the NDPers were toasting themselves -- and renegade Kormos -- as heroes. In the celebration it was easy to forget how close the social democratic saviours came to an ugly confrontation with their constituents and a split in the caucus.
It was by virtue of being NDP house leader -- whose job it is to coordinate speeches and votes in the legislature -- that Kormos became star of the unfolding scenario aimed at finding back-to-work legislation that the NDP could consent to without losing its labour backers. A few years ago, when NDP chief Howard Hampton appointed the volatile former criminal lawyer to the sensitive post, there were caucus members who raised their eyebrows, one of whom was Marilyn Churley, who hardly left the Welland MPP's side last week.
"I think Peter did an amazing job in these negotiations," she tells me. "But I was also making sure that as a Toronto member who had a lot at stake I would stay close to the negotiations. Peter has a particular style, and he loves nothing better than a good fight. This would have been a fun fight in the house, but I think he came to see that it was a fight no one wanted, including most of the workers."
For his part, Kormos says that if the government hadn't come around on the last sticking point -- agreeing to appoint an arbitrator endorsed by the labour movement -- he would have held up the back-to-work legislation regardless of what anyone said, including his caucus colleagues.
"I've been under pressure from my own constituents during the years I've been at Queen's Park. At the end of the day, my sense of obligation is to do the right thing. If that means I do get elected or don't get elected, then god bless. If the (union) had not given that approval, I would have obstructed it. I've withheld unanimous consent before at the displeasure of my caucus, and I would do it again."
Ross McClellan, former adviser to Bob Rae and the Ontario Federation of Labour staffer who made that fateful call to Eves last Thursday morning to intercede on the arbitrator issue, now credits Kormos's "hard bargaining" for resolving the dispute on terms acceptable to the union. "Peter is an extremely skilled politician and he knows labour law, and he knew what he was going after and what he needed to get," says McClellan, who years ago fought Kormos over the latter's disagreement with then-premier Rae's Social Contract.
"Peter had negotiated 95 per cent of what was needed for the union to accept back-to-work legislation."
McClellan opines that government house leader Chris Stockwell, who handled the negotiations with Kormos, insisted on absolute government authority to appoint arbitrators. In doing this, the hapless Stockwell was insisting on a process that as minister of labour he had tried but failed to defend before the Ontario Court of Appeal, which ruled that such a system is "contrary to the principles and requirements of fairness and natural justice." The Supreme Court of Canada will hear the case this fall.
Asked to explain why Stockwell refused to agree on Wednesday night to something that was acceptable to the premier on Thursday morning, the minister's spinners appear at a loss. "We didn't want to set a precedent," says Heather Capanelli, who also says it's a rule that the minister of labour appoints the arbitrator.
It's probably unfair to ask government staffers to explain how and why negotiations changed so suddenly after Eves got involved. The answer, after all, lies in the realm of politics, not policy. As McClellan says, "Ernie couldn't have been clearer (on the phone) that he wanted a Davis-era-style settlement. I can't give you an exact quote, but the term "Davis-era" was in the conversation," he says, referring to the very un-Mike-Harris-like premier who ran Ontario in the 70s and 80s.
"The market for extreme right-wing politics has dropped off, which is good for the NDP and probably paves the way for minority government after the next election."
Memo to Stockwell and all other Tory ministers and minions: the Big Blue Machine is now motoring on social consensus. Get with the program.