Facing the prospect of a lockout within three weeks, Toronto’s outside workers have played an unexpected gambit in its negotiations with the City of Toronto, offering to freeze wages for the next three years, a move the city admits is significant but not significant enough to reach a deal.
Described only yesterday by city negotiators as “Dr. No” for persistent rejections of city demands, Mark Ferguson, President of CUPE Local 416, said he is willing to roll over the current collective agreement for the next three years. Assuming the average collective agreement would grant 2-per-cent annual wage increases, the concession would save the city $8.5-million a year, or $25.5-million over the life of the contract.
“We are ready to sign a wage freeze tomorrow,” declared Mr. Ferguson at a morning press conference at City Hall. “I believe this goodwill gesture is enough to avoid any labour disruptions in the future.”
The move is not unprecedented for Local 416 – representing over 6,000 garbage workers, paramedics and other outside workers – but certainly unusual given that the two sides have barely budged over the last two months of faltering negotiations. Strategically, however, it defuses claims that union inflexibility is to blame for dragging the city towards a labour shutdown.
Mr. Ferguson characterized it as a peace offering, but it hasn’t warmed any hearts among the mayor’s inner circle quite yet. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, who first publicized the Dr. No characterization, found himself filling the role following Mr. Ferguson’s announcement on Friday.
“No,” he said, when asked if the offer of a wage freeze was enough to secure a deal. “There’s far more at stake here than wages and benefits. We’re willing to be quite reasonable on wages and benefits, we’ve told them that, but there are changes to the contract that we need to have to allow us to get to the efficiencies we need to balance our budget.”
Mr. Holyday, chair of the Employee and Labour Relations Committee, did concede the offer is “a good start.”
But city negotiators have been instructed to focus on job-security provision rather than wages. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong identified the so-called “jobs for life” as an aspect of the contract the city wants removed. That clause guarantees full-time employees another job in the municipality if they are displaced by contracting out.
“What the union is trying to do, obviously, is trying to protect all those other provisions they have – the jobs for life provisions – and all those nice protections and clauses and benefits and perks they have within that contract,” said Mr. Minnan-Wong.
Clearly surprised by the offer, both Mr. Holyday and Mr. Minnan-Wong chastised Mr. Ferguson for bargaining through the media rather than at the negotiating table.
“It’s something that’s come right out of the blue, but it should have come at the bargaining table,” said Mr. Holyday.
Mr. Ferguson countered that the city has only granted two half-days of negotiations. A Local 416 source said that the union has twice offered a media blackout in bargaining, but the city has turned down the offer.
On Thursday, the city pushed Toronto closer to an all-out work stoppage by asking the provincial Minister of Labour to declare an official stalemate in negotiations with Local 416, also called a declaration of “no-board.”
The province is expected to come back with a no-board report as soon as Tuesday, starting a 17-day countdown until the city can declare a lockout or the union can go on strike.
The status of negotiations with CUPE Local 416, the city’s second-largest union, will have an inevitable effect on negotiations with Local 79, the largest city union with over 17,000 members.