The aggravation and the stench, not to mention the plagues of fruit flies and vermin, that descended on Toronto during the summer of 2009 when City of Toronto outside workers went on strike, might be reason enough for Torontonians to breathe a sigh of relief that an agreement was ironed out between the union and the city, heading off another anticipated work stoppage.
The showdown between city negotiators and CUPE Local 416, which was preceded by a lot of hardline posturing, especially from the camp of Mayor Rob Ford, put the fear into some that we would see a replay of that summer of garbage-infested discontent.
Local 416 union leader, Mark Ferguson, has now taken the tentative agreement that reportedly shapes a significant compromise back to his members.
For the unions representing city employees, the days of having influence at City Hall are now behind them. Former mayor, David Miller, has indeed left the building. Public bitterness over that 2009 strike has also left the unions in a much weakened position.
Union members and leaders would surely have understood going into the recent negotiations that it was not only local politicians, in particular Ford allies, who would be unwilling to bend to their demands to hold on to their increased sick days, drug plans and job-for-life security, but that a considerable proportion of city residents would be unsympathetic, especially if union members seemed prepared to strike over them.
Unhappily for unionized workers, we are now in a climate where contract negotiations have become a zero-sum game – one side is going to have to lose in order for the other to win – and on that losing side now more and more are the unions.
Ford has shown that he will get support from the public for privatizing some services if it means avoiding a repetition of their being inconvenienced, as with the last city strike. So unionized workers have to be worried.
Public transit workers have already lost the option of striking, now that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has been declared an essential service, and garbage removal services east of Yonge Street are on their way to being privatized.
Anyone who thinks the unions have gotten out of hand with their demands for benefits and job security will tell you that the unions have finally gotten their comeuppance. But what has to be understood is that unions set a standard not only for their members but also for other workers. When the strength of unions is eroded, other workers also find themselves in a more precarious position.
The charge of the free market mentality has meant a diminishing of power on the human resources side of the equation. We may blame unions for being grasping, but they were the line between better working conditions for the vast majority of workers and the bottom line mentality of those who champion the free market and who will outsource jobs for the sake of their ever-growing profit margin. Or in the case of conservative politicians, to ensure their less-is-more political philosophy wins the day.
There is the temptation to view the negotiating sides following the outcome of these negotiations as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but there is a budget to consider and there is a finite amount that can be extended to contract renewals. Expectations need to be in line with that understanding, and compromises have to be made.
If city workers are waking up to a contract offer that presents much less than they would have hoped for, they will have to ask what they could have realistically expected, given the times.
Whatever comes out of this first set of city/CUPE negotiations, and we will not know precise details for a number of days, the stage has been set for the other unions representing city employees as their contracts are also up for renewal.
The worry for all workers, though, should be that both public and private employers, seeing a wave of divisiveness between unprotected workers and those who are unionized, will use that as momentum to gut worker benefits.
There may be talk of serving the taxpayer, but the people on the short end of the stick also pay taxes.