As the CUPE Union reps representing about 18,000 city inside workers (Local 79) and another 7,000 outside workers (Local 416) prepare to sit down with city managers to hammer out new contracts, a merger of the two bargaining units has once again become a bone of considerable contention.
That's too bad, because given the cash constraints the city is in, employees would be a lot better off negotiating with one united voice than two competing ones.
Tim Armstrong, the former provincial deputy minister of labour brought in to arbitrate the end of Toronto's 16-day municipal employees strike in 2002, made this case quite succinctly in the report he handed in at the end of that assignment.
"The union leadership must set aside the belligerent and uncompromising positions they have too often taken in the past," Armstrong said at the time. "Macho competition of this sort, whatever its limited entertainment value, does not serve the best interests of the members."
Local 416 is all for unifying. But, as has become something of a tradition since Toronto was amalgamated into a megacity in 1998, the "one big union" proposal has become a divisive issue in the Local 79 executive elections that will be decided November 22.
According to Ali Mallah, the vice-presidential candidate on a slate that's campaigning to unseat incumbent president Ann Dembinski and her allies on the current executive, "the majority of our members want one union" representing both inside and outside workers.
Mallah says he can understand why there was resistance to a merger immediately after amalgamation. Civic employees were uncertain about their future and many were unwilling to embrace too much change all at once. This was especially true of Local 79 members, since Local 416 - the driving force behind the single union concept - was an unproven entity newly formed to replace a scandal-tarnished Local 43 as the champion of outside workers.
"It's 2004 now," Mallah notes. "It's time for change."
But Dembinski - who opposed a merger when she was elected Local 79 president two years ago, soon after Armstrong awarded both locals a three-year pact with a 9 per cent wage increase retroactive to 2001 - sees no reason to support the idea now.
"I'm certainly not hearing any uproar out there," she says. "Merger is not part of our platform, because the issue has been addressed by our membership twice in the past.'
But Brian Cochrane, the president of Local 416, is adamant that union negotiators would be in a much better state of preparedness if they had just one game plan to follow.
"We make no bones about it," the leader of the outside workers says. "If this is about members, as it should be, there is no question that one union is the best answer. The last round of collective bargaining couldn't have illustrated it better."
During that exercise, city negotiators continually played the two locals against each other until Local 416 took strike action. It wasn't until after Local 79 followed suit six days later that the province stepped in with back-to-work legislation and the appointment of Armstrong. He eventually gave the CUPE crowd pretty much what they'd asked for from the beginning and rebuked former mayor Mel Lastman for his lack of political leadership.
"All the levers the employer is allowed with respect to two bargaining units like this is just too much," Cochrane says. "They already have so much at their disposal by way of legislation that it's ridiculous. To continue to hand them all those levers on an ongoing basis doesn't make any sense at all to us."
But the Local 416 president has no plans to interfere in Local 79 affairs, in spite of the fact that he's unconvinced upcoming contract negotiations will be a whole lot easier just because CUPE helped David Miller get elected mayor last November.
After all, he notes, many of the people who were in charge of labour relations during the Lastman years are still in the city's employ. And a cash-strapped council doesn't unanimously share Miller's labour-friendly views. Never mind that the mayor has already called in Armstrong to see if he can get things moving on some outstanding issues before contract negotiations start in earnest prior to the current contract's December 31 expiration date.
"While we anticipate a different atmosphere around bargaining this time, we certainly are concerned about the underlings and their ability to guide a process that's going to require a great deal of skill and understanding to facilitate a deal," Cochrane says.
He won't divulge what his local will be seeking in the new contract but insists a simple cost-of-living increase "isn't going to make it" in the wage department.
Dembinski is even more tight-lipped.
"I'm not going to say what our priorities are until I've met with the membership," the insider workers' prez says.
But we already know what one of her priorities isn't. One big union.