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City to impose contract rather than lock out workers

A garbage collection crew picks up residential trash and recycling in Toronto, Ont. Jan. 19, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

City negotiators say they will impose a new contract on Toronto's outside workers if a deal is not reached by this Sunday's deadline, saying employees are expected to report to work as usual next week.

The unusual move, which union leaders characterized as a "provocative, threatening final offer," nevertheless puts to rest fears of a lockout by the city for the time being. CUPE Local 416, which represents more than 6,000 garbage workers, street cleaners, paramedics and other outside workers, has yet to hold a strike vote and its president, Mark Ferguson, said Friday his members "will not be provoked" by the city's tactics. Instead, he said his members will remain at the table, hoping for a negotiated settlement.

The city's unionized employees have been working without a contract since the end of the year. This Sunday marks the date the city can legally begin to impose new terms on workers.

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"Services will continue as usual, employees are expected to work," said Bruce Anderson, the city's head of human resources. "Our intent is to negotiate a collective agreement."

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, head of the city labour relations committee, said there should be no noticeable change to city services if the city's terms are put in place.

"The only difference to the taxpayer might be that we are going to operate in a more efficient way and that the cost to run the city will be less," he said.

Union leaders responded by saying the city's offer would "gut" the collective agreement, describing it as "wrapped in a threat."

"It is the clearest demonstration to date that the city has no interest to bargain a collective agreement," Mr. Ferguson said. "The city's position clearly seeks to provoke us into a fight. There is no other way to read it."

The union has expressed reservations for some time that the city could unilaterally impose a new contract as a way of provoking Local 416 workers to walk out. Now that the city has said it will impose a contract, the question is how the union will respond. If it calls a strike vote, it risks provoking the kind of public backlash experienced during the lengthy labour disruption in 2009. If its members continue to work under the city's imposed deal, it could play into the city's hands by, in effect, accepting its terms.

The union is required to give 48 hours notice before a strike vote can take place and a union source said Friday there were no plans at this time to hold a vote.

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New provisions on job security contained in the city's offer are likely to be some of the most contentious issues. It proposes an end to job protection in the event of contracting out – the so-called "jobs for life" provisions – for all workers but those with seniority of 22 years or more.

The union offered Thursday to change the contracting-out protection, now available to all permanent workers, to only those on the job for more than five years.

The city's four-year offer, presented at the bargaining table Thursday night, includes:

- lump sum payments starting at 1.25 per cent and rising to 1.75 per cent in the third year. Under the proposal, workers would get their first payment on March 15;

- a 1.75-per-cent wage increase in the fourth year;

- changes to sick pay and medical benefits;

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- an offer of arbitration in the next round of negotiations for the city's paramedics. The city's offer envisions a separate collective agreement for the EMS workers and the ability to hire part-time paramedics.

The union has offered a three-year deal including a wage freeze, which it estimates would save the city $25-million over the term of the contract. It also has offered changes to EMS schedules and has asked that paramedics be designated an essential service.

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