With a few well-chosen words, Tim Armstrong, the provincially appointed mediator-arbitrator, summed up the root cause of last summer's civic workers strike."It requires both sophistication and sensitivity to make labour relations work," he declared after handing down his long-awaited settlement of the ugly dispute.
The former deputy minister of labour in a long-ago Ontario Tory government obviously has a good handle on what's been missing from the political tool kit at City Hall these past few years. And, judging by Mayor Mel Lastman's rabid reaction to the compromise Armstrong came up with this week to settle all the outstanding issues at the root of the 16-day strike by almost 25,000 municipal CUPE workers, sophistication and sensitivity will remain in short supply until His Washup exits the building.
"I think we also need political leadership," added the veteran lawyer, who served four premiers and also did a four-year stint as the province's agent general in the Asia Pacific region.
Armstrong was quick to note that all of Lastman's ranting and raving last June and July about how the civic unions were demanding jobs for life was just so much bunk.
"I don't see it that way," he said of the mantra the mayor and his deputy, Case Ootes, recited over and over again in an effort to turn public opinion against their employees.
Armstrong insisted the city was always "perfectly free" to downsize its work force and contract out public services without changing the language in its labour contracts. And he said he hopes the city gets its act together before it heads back to the bargaining table to negotiate a new collective agreement with its workers.
The arbitrator maintained it was the mayor who agreed three years ago to give workers with 10 years in the civil service what used to be called job security. Armstrong suggested there was something unseemly about trying to claw back that provision just because it no longer fits in with a new political agenda. "I've essentially awarded the status quo," Armstrong said of his job security decision.
This is pretty much what the unions were after when they walked off the job June 26. Money was never the issue, they said, and the arbitrator used such statements to deliver the 9 per cent wage increase over three years that the city had put on the table when the strike began.
"It's a good compromise," said the man Premier Ernie Eves and his Conservative cohorts called upon to play Solomon after they stepped into the dispute and legislated the unions back to work on July 12.
Alas, Lastman didn't see it that way. No sooner had the mayor sat down at the briefing table in the small Sheraton Centre meeting room where Armstrong and the presidents of the two union locals had already done their thing than he went off on a tear about "jobs for life."
"I'm not happy about it," Lastman fumed. When informed by a reporter that the arbitrator had termed the slogan inappropriate, the mayor spat back, "I don't care what he said."
By this time, Lastman had already blasted the unions for suggesting the strike had nothing to do with money.
"It's all about money," he insisted. The mayor then went on to criticize the unions for lobbying councillors for moral support and some councillors for siding with the unions "against the very people who elect them.
"That's what happens here and that is wrong," he bellowed.
Over the course of just a few minutes, Lastman belittled the unions, blasted the federal and provincial governments and accused journalists of spreading lies. By the time a member of the city's corporate communications department tried to cut off media questions, the mayor had suggested the city would both lose money and make money as a result of the arbitrator's award. Coherent he was not.
Small wonder the unions considered themselves the winners at the end of the exercise.
"We see this as a major victory for both our members and the citizens of Toronto," said Ann Dembinski, president of local 79 and spokesperson for about 18,000 inside workers.
"All in all, we're very pleased," said Brian Cochrane, who represents the almost 7,000 outside workers who belong to local 416. "We just hope things will move forward from here," he added. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much chance of that so long as Lastman is in the mayor's chair and Ootes is riding shotgun.
Councillor Lorenzo Berardinetti, who was a member of the city's labour advisory committee prior to the strike, said Armstrong's award was pretty much what municipal negotiators had recommended as a settlement long before the unions were in a strike position earlier this year.
"The whole thing could have been resolved a long time ago if the mayor had just listened to what our own staff had to say more than a year ago," Berardinetti maintained. "Instead, he went his own way, creating more acrimony and hard feelings among our employees and putting the public through an unnecessary disruption of services."
Councillor David Miller went even further. He suggested the city's labour negotiators probably could have worked out a better deal that would have avoided a strike and cost taxpayers less money than the contract the arbitrator awarded. "We had a strike over jobs for life, but jobs for life was always a lie," Miller said. "It just wasn't true."
Now there's talk of locals 79 and 416 joining forces to become one big union before the next round of contract negotiations. While Cochrane is a long-time supporter of such an amalgamation, Dembinski is opposed to it. However, local 79 is currently in the throes of executive elections, and one of the slates has made the merger the cornerstone of its campaign. Ballots are already being mailed in, and the results will be known November 26.
Armstrong actually referred to the relationship between the two locals in his awards report.
"The union leadership must set aside the belligerent and uncompromising positions they have too often taken in the past," he said. "This tendency is fed, regrettably, by the uncomfortable relationship between local 416 and local 79, characterized by mutual denunciations of one another's negotiating strategies. Macho competition of this sort, whatever its limited entertainment value, does not serve the best interests of the members."
Clearly, "sophistication and sensitivity" is required on all sides.