Case Ootes wants to be the next mayor of Toronto. But the odds on the veteran East York politician winning electoral promotion next year from his current job as Mel Lastman's trusted deputy are getting longer and longer with every day that striking outside workers pound the picket lines.It's become increasingly clear in the week since some 6,800 members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 416 walked off the job that Ootes's right-wing ideology is driving the city's hardline stance in negotiations with its outside workers. As most City Hall observers will attest, the scatterbrained Lastman is too much of an opportunist to have anything resembling a rational political philosophy. So the mayor's second-in-command has stepped in to fill the void with his conservative convictions and potentially useful Conservative connections up the road at Queen's Park. After all, one never knows when it might become necessary to call for provincial government help to legislate unresponsive strikers back to work.
But in the process, the councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) has become the political face most often seen and hear commenting on the labour disruption that has turned Toronto into a Third World city whose irate residents complain about paying First World taxes to watch garbage pile up in their parks.
It hasn't gone unnoticed that Ootes was also the political brains behind the city's recently adopted Alternative Services Delivery policy. Its main objective is the elimination of civic union jobs, clearing the way for contracting out, if not outright privatization, of many public services and programs. There are those who suspect the beneficiaries of this change will also have good Tory credentials.
The controversial proposal was presented to council for a vote last month at the height of sensitive contract negotiations between the city and the two CUPE locals that represent almost 25,000 municipal employees. Local 79 -- the inside workers' union -- has about 18,000 members who've been in a legal strike position since last Saturday.
"There's never a good time for these things," Ootes argued when the ASD policy came up for approval. But, he added, "council has made it clear that it wants to make sure the taxpayers are getting value for their money, and that's what council is proceeding with."
Local politicians who opposed the initiative likened it to waving a red rag in the face of a raging bull. In its first phase, ASD turns over selected janitorial services, some forestry work and a number of purchasing jobs in the finance department to private contractors.
Indeed, it was this very proposal that sent the unions to the provincial labour board for a no-board report that began the countdown to a strike and allowed both CUPE locals to reasonably argue that any resulting walkout would be over future job security -- not money.
"Whether or not there's a strike depends on the union, but I'm not sure what they'd be striking over," Ootes said at the time.
That was an arrogant thing to say. It made it seem as if Ootes, the mayor and their privatization-obsessed allies on council expected the unions to roll over and play dead. They as much as dared the labour leaders to walk out if they didn't like what the city was planning to do to their members' jobs.
When local 416 delayed its walkout by two and a half days, Ootes and crew figured they'd won the battle. So when the garbage collectors, parks workers and road repair crews did go on strike nine days ago, they reacted with shock, fury and -- in Lastman's case -- profanity.
"They've pissed away their summer," the mayor fumed. "I can't see them coming back before September or October."
But while Lastman insisted the dispute was "all about money," Brian Cochrane, the president of CUPE local 416, was adamant that the union was satisfied with the 9.2 per cent pay raise the city had offered over three years. The issue was management's plan to whittle away at the job security Lastman himself had agreed to in the last contract, negotiated in 1999. Both sides agreed then that an employee with 10 years of municipal service would be offered other work if his or her job was contracted out to the private sector.
But the final offer the city made this time around would require workers to have 13 years under their belts by the time the contract expires in 2005. The union's last pre-strike demand was for a six-year benchmark. And that term of service requirement remains the key issue in the stalled negotiations.
In the meantime, the city and local 416 battle for public support and to assign blame for the growing mounds of rubbish on the streets and closed public swimming pools during the heat wave that began on the Canada Day long weekend.
The city has been particularly inept at playing the blame game. At one point late last week, the mayor implored Cochrane to make it possible for city-run swimming pools to stay open when parks management was already draining the water. When striking workers on the picket lines outside waste transfer stations offered to unload the garbage residents were bringing in for disposal, municipal officials called the offer "unhelpful" -- supposedly because it made the unions look good. When local 79 put off its strike action so the city could focus on finding a compromise with the outside workers, management did next to nothing.
This all makes it appear as if the city has been trying to force a strike from the word go. But now that it has one, there's no comprehensive plan for dealing with the fallout other than hoping the public will take out its wrath on the unions.
It's a stupid strategy, and one Case Ootes could very well be blamed for.