The collective agreement reached this week between the city of Toronto and its 6,200 outside workers can be summed up in one word: predictable.
Days before last Friday's 12:01 am "carved-in-stone" strike deadline, reporters following the closed-door bargaining marathon between management and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 416 at the Crown Plaza hotel were confidently suggesting workers' reps would extend their deadline for a walkout and take the weekend to hammer out a deal. An informal pool leaned heavily toward a tentative agreement being reached sometime after dawn on Sunday.
This is not to say that the four-year deal announced Sunday noon when Mayor David Miller showed up to shake hands with Local 416 president Brian Cochrane was somehow scripted. But it did follow a certain tack. If you're serious about striking, you don't start a job action on a weekend, when most folks won't even miss the services you provide.
And while both sides in the almost-around-the-clock bartering insist things could easily have ended up differently, few observers truly believed Miller would suffer the political embarrassment of being walked out on by a labour organization that strongly endorsed his mayoral candidacy and provided his campaign with its own experienced communications director.
It was precisely this perceived coziness with the union that put the first-term chief magistrate in such a precarious position last week. Miller's critics long maintained that these negotiations would end with the mayor giving in to the union. Indeed, Cochrane charged at several news conferences that the city's labour relations specialists were incompetent and a strike was inevitable unless the mayor got personally involved in the bargaining.
Miller wisely refused the temptation to be drawn in, and for good reason. He didn't want to give his detractors the opportunity to suggest he put the union's concerns ahead of those of local taxpayers. Once the union realized this, negotiations entered their final stage.
"From my perspective, we didn't do as well as I'd hoped, but it's not as bad as I feared," Miller's fiscally conservative budget chief, David Soknacki, says of a pact that is widely expected to be ratified by Local 416 members today (Thursday, July 14) or tomorrow. The new collective agreement will give garbage collectors, heavy equipment operators and other outside workers a 2.75 per cent wage increase retroactive to January 1, with increases of 3 per cent in 2006 and 3.25 per cent in 2007 and 2008.
But money was never the biggest issue. What came as something of a surprise to many at City Hall was the union's agreement to a four-year deal instead of the traditional three years.
"It gives the city some certainty" in preparing a longer-term financial plan," Soknacki says of the extended arrangement. It was part of a trade-off that will provide improved seniority rights for part-time workers and put the union in a position to get back work that is now contracted out.
But in addition to financial certainty, there's also a certain level of political certainty built into the new agreement. Councillors won't have to worry about the state of labour relations again until late 2008, and by then Soknacki is hopeful there'll be "continuous improvement" in an atmosphere poisoned by the inequitable wage and benefit schedules imposed on the municipal work force by amalgamation almost eight years ago.
"This isn't about beating people up," Soknacki says. "It's an attempt to prove to everybody that city management and city workers can actually come together."