February 6, 2012
Two days after Mayor Rob Ford’s administration threatened to unilaterally impose a new contract on the city’s outside workers, both sides reached a tentative four-year agreement that union leaders said entails “numerous concessions” on their part.
The result appeared to be a vindication of the city’s hard-ball strategy, which administration members said was designed to avoid months of talks and a labour disruption.
The resolution with CUPE Local 416, whose 6,000 workers include garbage collectors, bylaw officers and maintenance crews, could set the tone for negotiations with other civic unions. It is also sure to be closely scrutinized by other municipal governments across the country that, like Toronto, are anxious to rein in labour costs.
The result was a sharp contrast with the last round of negotiations, in 2009, when the administration of union-friendly mayor David Miller failed to reach an agreement with city workers after six months of bargaining. That led to an acrimonious summer strike that left both sides bruised and sapped of public support.
This time, city negotiators took a tough stand, zeroing in on job-security provisions that prevent management from laying off workers and changing shift schedules. Such protections stand in the way of Mr. Ford’s vow to shed 7,000 jobs from the city payroll.
Determined to achieve a speedy resolution, the city obtained an order from the province imposing a Feb. 5 deadline. If a deal was not reached, the city could lock workers out and the union would be in a legal strike position.
The union, wary of provoking public anger, opted not to hold a strike vote, but heated rhetoric on both sides made a lockout sound inevitable. Then, the administration made a surprise announcement: if a deal was not reached, it would invoke a provincial labour law to enforce new rules without the union’s agreement. Among other things, it threatened to strip some job protections from employees with less than 22 years of service.
The unusual tactic apparently had an effect, forcing the union to work furiously on an agreement during an all-night negotiating session. Around 8 a.m. Sunday, bleary-eyed officials emerged from a conference room at a downtown hotel with a deal in hand.
“I’m extremely happy we’ve been able to reach this agreement without a labour disruption,” said Mr. Ford, who spent the night nearby. “I know both parties have been bargaining very hard around the clock for the last week and past four months.”
Local 416 president Mark Ferguson said his union gave up many “sacrifices.”
“I would suggest it’s probably one of the toughest labour negotiations in Canadian history,” he said. “We are extremely excited that in fact we were able to resolve this through direct negotiation.”
The two sides will return to the table Monday morning to work out some final details in the agreement. After that, it must be approved by union members and voted on by council.
Left-wing councillor Adam Vaughan said the city’s tough posture sent the wrong message about handling labour relations.
“The drama gets a lot of the attention, while the negotiating happens behind closed doors,” he said. “The disappointing part of all this is the notion that the only way to solve problems in Toronto is to scream and shout at people.”
But centrist Josh Matlow said the firm stand appeared to have paid off.
“I think the city did something unprecedented in that they made it clear from step one they weren’t going to bend,” he said. “The strategy seems to have worked.”
The city is currently at the table with the larger local 79, which represents indoor workers, including white-collar civil servants, health workers and recreation centre staff among others. Other unions have already reached agreements, including the police, who were given an 11.5-per-cent pay hike.
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