Barely two weeks into contract negotiations, city hall and its two largest public-sector unions are girding for a prolonged shutdown of municipal services
Sources with knowledge of the preparations have confirmed that the city planning and solid waste departments have met to plan for a January lockout of up to six months while the parks department is training managers to run Zambonis to avoid a prolonged closing of municipal arenas.
The city exchanged a list of demands with CUPE 416 on Oct. 19, launching the negotiation process that union head Mark Ferguson believes will lead to an all-out lockout of unionized city workers.
The city’s 21-page proposal leaves no aspect of the current collective agreement untouched, according to Mr. Ferguson. He revealed that the city’s demands include terminating CUPE’s employment security provisions – disparagingly known as the jobs-for-life clause – as well as amending or deleting facets of the current contract dealing with worker redeployment, layoff and recall rules, job-posting policies and seniority rights.
In addition, the city is asking for a 10-per-cent rollback of employee benefits.
“We are light-years apart,” Mr. Ferguson said. “We came in with a simple three-page set of proposals that were largely geared at protecting what we have. By contrast, the city is looking to either eliminate or amend every facet of the collective agreement.”
The chair of the Employee and Labour Relations Committee, deputy mayor Doug Holyday, refused to get into the specifics of city demands and chalked up Mr. Ferguson’s statements to “sabre-rattling.”
“It’s improper for the union to go negotiating through the media like this,” he said. “If we did that, they’d be crying from the loudest church steeple.”
When asked if the city is preparing for a labour shutdown of up to six months, as sources have suggested, Mr. Holyday said, “It would be irresponsible for us not to avoid the worst. We don’t wish to have a disruption of any services and that’s not something you can do at the last minute. You have to prepare for all eventualities.”
The city’s contracts with its two largest unions, Local 79 and Local 416, expire on Jan. 1. At any time during bargaining, either side can ask the provincial Ministry of Labour to appoint a conciliator. If they remain at an impasse by Jan. 1, the city or the union can ask the province for a “No Board” report, basically an admission of irreconcilable differences. Seventeen days after the province issues that report – Jan. 19 at the earliest – the parties would be in a legal strike or lockout position.
Mr. Ferguson said he’s not planning any rotating strikes or work-to-rule so early in the process.
While it is virtually unheard of for any level of government in Canada to lock out its employees without first being provoked by some manner of job action, people familiar with both sides of the bargaining table insist it’s a logical outcome this time around. Since amalgamation, public-sector unions have been able to get an upper hand on city negotiators by timing job action for the hot summer months when public outcry over festering garbage piles forces the city’s hand.
To avert the hue and cry, and push through a settlement on its own terms, the city must reach an agreement during the winter. Assuming the unions remain on the job, a lockout is the only means to that end.
“The only way for an employer to break the pattern of past negotiations is to control it, and the only way to control it in certain circumstances is a lockout,” said Jim Vair, the city’s former chief labour negotiator. “If you don’t like the status quo, which is a summer garbage strike, then you have to make a difficult choice. Otherwise the timing is in the hands of the union.”