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Toronto mayor Rob Ford speaks to the media after councillors voted 24-19 in favour for the hotly contested light rail transit on Sheppard Avenue East at Toronto City Hall on Thursday March 22, 2012. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
Toronto mayor Rob Ford speaks to the media after councillors voted 24-19 in favour for the hotly contested light rail transit on Sheppard Avenue East at Toronto City Hall on Thursday March 22, 2012. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

Ford team set tone for municipal labour talks Add to ...

The aggressive strategy that led to the City of Toronto’s new labour peace was half a year in the making and had the Ford administration girding for a four-month to six-month strike with contingencies that included neutralizing the union’s strongest – and smelliest – weapon: Toronto’s garbage.

The city’s plan worked and now other municipalities across the country are looking at replicating the Toronto model.

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This spring, the city inked new four-year deals with its major unions – and it managed to avoid all but one labour disruption, a 10-day strike by library workers. As Canadian jurisdictions prepare to take on public-sector unions in a new age of austerity, the estimated $141-million in savings over four years that Mayor Rob Ford’s administration is claiming is already turning heads.

“I’m getting calls, of course. They are definitely interested,” City Manager Joe Pennachetti said in a rare interview.

How did it happen? The administration’s multi-pronged strategy was in part a matter of timing and several lessons taken from the 39-day strike in the summer of 2009 – start talks early to avoid a summer strike, deal with the city’s main union locals separately, assemble an experienced negotiating team early and let them get their message out and employ a seldom-used tactic of imposing contract terms if necessary. The city also took steps early to ensure this time beloved neighbourhood parks would not become fetid dumps.

The city applied back in November to set up 16 primary trash drop-off depots at a dozen city works yards and four arena parking lots, according to provincial documents obtained by The Globe and Mail. The plan, say officials and councillors, was to park dump trucks at the sites and haul the garbage away, making it easier for a labour disruption to drag on until the union blinked.

“We were prepared for a four- to six-month strike,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the chair of the public works committee. "It meant a lot of contingency planning. We had fairly well-developed plans for solid waste to minimize impact."

Sophisticated groundwork for a work stoppage – which also included installing hundreds of cameras at potential picket sites, something the city did in 2009 too – was just one part of the Ford administration’s carefully executed, hardball strategy to take on organized labour.

Part of the city’s success laid in seizing a fortuitous moment. The unions, still smarting from the public backlash against their 2009 strike, were vowing to stay off the picket line.

Mr. Ford, meanwhile, gave his staff and the city’s negotiating team permission to do whatever it took to secure a favourable deal for the city.

Planning began in May of last year, six months before contracts with four different unions expired Dec. 31, 2011, and much earlier in the calendar than past administrations had started plotting for renegotiation.

A working group made up of Mr. Ford, his chief of staff Amir Remtulla, policy adviser Olivia Gondek, Mr. Minnan-Wong, the deputy mayor, budget chief and senior city officials, including Mr. Pennachetti and Bruce Anderson, the city’s executive director of human resources, began meeting sporadically, usually in the mayor's boardroom.

Bob Reynolds, the rumpled, labour-relations warhorse the city hired as chief negotiator last fall, and Craig Rix, a lawyer with prominent management-side firm Hicks Morley, later joined the group.

They sketched out a strategy: Set an ambitious mandate for negotiators, force the union to the table early to avoid a summer labour disruption and communicate clearly to the public that this round was about a cash-strapped city seizing back control of work rules, namely around scheduling, redeploying and job security.

The city’s Employee and Labour Relations Committee voted unanimously in favour of an aggressive mandate Sept. 16.

Separating the 6,000 outdoor labourers of CUPE Local 416 from the 23,000 inside workers of Local 79 was “absolutely,” part of the game plan, Mr. Anderson said. The city served Local 416 with a notice to commence bargaining Oct. 4, while Local 79 was essentially leaderless, enmeshed in a campaign to replace retiring president Ann Dembinski.

When the planning was in its infancy, a departing senior city official tipped off Mark Ferguson, the president of CUPE Local 416, that the Ford administration intended to lock out his 6,000 members for as long as six months.

Mr. Ferguson, who has since announced he won’t seek re-election in November, told anyone with a microphone that a lockout was looming. But Mr. Pennachetti, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Reynolds all say that was never in the cards.

“We wanted a negotiated settlement,” said Mr. Pennachetti. “That’s not just words. That was real.”

Besides, the city had another option to force the union’s hand.

Last summer, Mr. Remtulla presented the working group with research he’d done on a novel tactic that Ontario’s community colleges had deployed against unionized instructors in 2009.

If the union refused to settle, the city could simply implement its final offer. The union could either work under new terms and conditions imposed by the city, strike or buckle down and make a deal.

“It hasn’t been done [in the public sector]” Mr. Minnan-Wong said. “No one else had the balls.”

Mr. Ferguson believes the city switched directions after he made the lockout plan public. “Quite frankly, it speaks to the conniving nature of this administration to try to force a strike as opposed to take a stand and force changes through a lockout,” he said recently."I think it's a weasel way out of a dispute."

Despite the fact his union never called a strike vote, he says he saw the imposition of terms coming. On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 2, Mr. Reynolds asked him for a one-on-one meeting outside negotiations at the Sheraton Centre.

“He said, ‘Let’s go for a walk in the park, Mark,’ ” Mr. Ferguson recalled. Mr. Reynolds told him the city would be implementing its final offer if a deal wasn’t reached by the 12:01 a.m. deadline Sunday, Feb. 5.

“Mr. Ferguson and I had made it clear on both sides how we felt,” Mr. Reynolds recalled. “There wasn’t any ambiguity, I can assure you. It’s not my style.”

In the early hours of Sunday morning, with Mr. Ford and his staff camped out all night across the street at their City Hall office, the city and Local 416 reached a deal.

The four-year collective agreement granted workers no raise this year, followed by increases of 0.5 per cent, 1.75 per cent, 2.25 per cent in subsequent years. The city took back controlling of scheduling, redeployment and limited ironclad job protection to workers with 15 or more years of seniority, among other gains.

The deal – and the strategy – served as a template for Local 79, which eventually put the city’s offer to its members for a vote without recommendation. Three of four bargaining units ratified, with the final unit’s issues sent to arbitration.

Now the city’s biggest challenge is repairing relations with its bruised unions, something Mr. Ferguson and Tim Maguire, the rookie president of Local 79, say won’t be easy.

“We got the best deal, the best contract that was there this round, but it has done both a damage to labour relations and … city services,” Mr. Maguire said.

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