Governments across Canada are anxiously watching the City of Toronto’s negotiations with two locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – unresolved as of press time – as a test of the ability of all levels of government to restrain and reduce public-sector spending, and to restore the public finances of Canada to good health.
On midnight between Saturday and Sunday. CUPE Local 416 – Toronto’s “outside” workers, among others, garbage collectors and road maintenance staff – will be in a legal position to strike, and Mayor Rob Ford’s administration will be in a position to lock them out. Negotiations with the “inside” workers, members of Local 79, and with Local 2998 (“front-line” workers in community centres) have not reached this stage.
CUPE 416 stands for the status quo. It is not asking for any wage increase over the next three years, but it is resisting management’s ability to manage, which is severely constrained by the existing collective agreement. It is – or should be – the function of a government to direct and deploy its employees as it sees fit, economically and efficiently.
Oddly enough, it is the city government that is proposing raises over the next three years, in the form of a series of three lump-sum payments, followed by a wage increase starting on New Year’s Day, 2015.
Mark Ferguson, the president of 416, has said that his members’ seniority rights under the collective agreement are “actually very common. Most of CUPE’s municipal bargaining units across Canada contain similar protections.” That is all the more reason why this labour dispute is not merely a local matter, but also one that is nationally resonant – though Doug Holyday, the Deputy Mayor, has said that Toronto suffers “from some of the most restrictive and inefficient terms and conditions in the country.”
Because the union is defending the status quo, it has no motive to go on strike; the outside workers can win their point by continuing business as usual. If the negotiations do not succeed, Mr. Ford, Mr. Holyday and Joe Pennachetti, the city manager, may be left in the invidious position of locking out the workers.
CUPE apparently prefers seniority rights and control of shift schedules to money. This is not so much a “gravy train” – a favourite metaphor of Mr. Ford’s – as willful traffic congestion. Let governments, not unions, route the train.