A bitter labour dispute between Toronto’s Exhibition Place and its backstage workers has led to a picket line in front of the Royal Winter Fair – mere months after the same line made headlines at the CNE.
Neither the city-owned venue nor the locked-out International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 58, the union representing approximately 400 stagehands and technical employees, see any chance of the dispute being resolved before the annual winter fair ends on Sunday. They had a bargaining date planned for before the fair began, but it was later postponed until this coming weekend.
“The reason we wanted to meet that day, and in fact we wanted to meet earlier that week, was so that we could have it done before the Royal Winter Fair started,” Local 58 President Justin Antheunis said in an interview Monday. “There wouldn’t be picket lines outside ... and there wouldn’t be this cloud hanging over one of their marquis events."
For the union, a sticking point in negotiations has been the idea of outside groups bringing their own labour when they rent Exhibition facilities. “It doesn’t do us any good if they’re booking stuff 365 days a year, in all of their buildings, but Local 58 members aren’t working on it,” Mr. Antheunis said.
Exhibition Place’s negotiating team has taken issue with the practice of “job shadowing” – billing it as a form of job duplication – as well as extra weekend pay. “A guy sits on a stool next to a guy that’s operating a spotlight, where it’s very specialized to that show ... and he gets paid,” said Toronto city councillor Mark Grimes, who serves as chair of Exhibition Place’s Board of Governors. "If it’s a weekend, he gets paid double time. That’s crazy.”
In light of ongoing picket lines, the union representing Ontario’s secondary school teachers has advised members to avoid field trips to the fair this year, where possible. “It’s incumbent on us to support workers whose employers don’t seem to be negotiating with any degree of sincerity," union president Harvey Bischof said. The Toronto District School Board didn’t issue any board-wide directive, spokesperson Ryan Bird said, and at least some trips will continue.
The sincerity of negotiations has been questioned by both sides, with both Mr. Antheunis and Mr. Grimes saying on Monday that the issue seemed to have become personal. Mr. Antheunis believes Mr. Grimes may have had a hand in postponing the bargaining date because the union campaigned against him in this fall’s municipal elections. “We believe there was some political push from them to basically tell us to go stuff ourselves,” Mr. Antheunis said.
Mr. Grimes says that while picketers have been polite outside both the CNE and the Winter Fair, supporters of the union’s position have been filling his home mailbox with condoms, plastic rats and other unsavory items nearly every day, and swearing at his wife when she answers their phone. The October bargaining date was postponed as a result of “clarification” on what would be discussed, he said. “They want to make it personal, that’s up to them."
If this weekend’s bargaining dates go smoothly, the lockout could be over. Mr. Antheunis says the union is “hopeful” that’s the case. If the city lifts the lockout after Sunday, the union could hold a ratification vote with its membership as early as Nov. 15. But at Toronto’s City Hall, concern about the likelihood of reaching such an agreement looms large.
Mr. Grimes was asked on Monday if he’d seen any progress in the negotiations, and answered, “No, not at all.” Councillor Mike Layton, who also sits on the board, said it was his understanding that “any reasonable mediation” could resolve the issues at hand. “I think there’s something else going on,” he said. He suggested that the city consider shifting its negotiation team to find a new path forward. “The sides shouldn’t be this far apart, and for some reason they are.”
Mr. Antheunis said morale is still “pretty strong” among union members, and that they were willing to be without an agreement "as long as they are prepared to take away our jobs.”
Mr. Grimes was equally resolute in his stance.
“I think they thought, ‘We’ll get rid of Grimes and we’ll get some new chair in there,’ but no. I’m still here, I’m still standing. And I’ll tell you, I’m committed more than ever to get a modernized agreement for Exhibition Place and the taxpayers of Toronto," he said. "That’s my message and I’m sticking to it.”