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The Globe and Mail

Kudos to Ford's team for forging labour peace

John Elmslie, a librarian at the The Toronto Reference Library shelves books after the library opened its' doors to the public for the first time in two weeks, on Friday March 30, 2012.


Labour peace? In Mayor Rob Ford's city?

A brief strike by library workers is over. Outside workers settled with the city in February. Most of the inside workers voted on Wednesday to settle along similar lines. Now the holdout recreation workers have a deal and part-time long-term-care workers are heading to arbitration.

"Who'd a thunk it?" said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a member of Mr. Ford's executive team. "Without a drop of blood."

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Not long ago, it was considered a given that, with a bulldozing right-wing mayor lined up against stiff-necked unions, Toronto would face an ugly labour confrontation. The head of the outside workers said that he fully expected the city to lock out his union. Managers were training up to hold the fort.

But as the city was wringing its hands about a work stoppage, Mr. Ford's team quietly drew up a plan to win the contest against its unions without a strike or lockout. The plan had four basic points.

One, start negotiations early and bring them to a head in the winter, robbing the unions of the threat of another summer garbage strike.

Two, keep the pressure on, relentlessly. When the unions were hanging back in the talks, refusing to show their hand, the city asked the provincial government to issue a "no-board" report, effectively declaring talks stalled and setting a firm deadline for a strike or lockout.

When that deadline approached with the outside workers, the city issued a second, even bigger threat. Unless the union came to terms, it would simply impose new work conditions. Tim Maguire, head of the inside workers' union, says the city used "intimidation tactics" in bargaining. Yes, it did, and they worked.

Three, focus on one goal. Instead of putting a priority on freezing wages or clawing back benefits, as many public-sector employers are doing these days, it insisted on changing job-security protections that tie the city's hands when it wants to shed or redeploy workers.

Four, take the case for reform to the public. Deputy mayor Doug Holyday was all over the media as the talks progressed. A gentlemanly conservative who used to be mayor of Etobicoke, he argued that the city's demands for more flexibility were not radical take-backs but fair and reasonable conditions for delivering better customer service to residents.

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The plan worked brilliantly. Mr. Holyday was the public face. Bruce Anderson, the city's human-resources director, handled the details. Bob Reynolds, a gruff veteran negotiator straight out of central casting, was the point man at the talks. Mr. Ford stayed in the background. When he did speak, he refrained from the usual union-bashing rhetoric. Addressing the news media on Friday, he called the final inside-workers deal a "win-win for everyone." But as Mr. Holyday put it, "This mayor had the political will, and showed it."

The result is a series of new contracts that give the city much of what it was seeking from the unions. Both inside and outside workers will lose the sweetheart deal that protected all permanent employees from layoff if their jobs were contracted out. Only employees with at least 15 years of seniority will enjoy that shield.

The city managed to streamline other byzantine layoff and redeployment rules that allowed the unions to delay and delay, keeping some workers on for up to two years even if their jobs were eliminated. And it wrested an agreement from the unions to take on chronic absenteeism.

The unions were on the defensive throughout the talks. With the legacy of the bitterly resented 2009 strike in mind – the one that led directly to the election of Mr. Ford – it was far-fetched to think of hitting the bricks again. When the library union bolted, it seemed a futile gesture.

But while the city side is the clear winner, the settlement can hardly be called draconian. "I know what draconian is because I've done it," says Mr. Reynolds, a 30-year veteran of the labour wars. City workers got a modest pay hike, which is more than Ontario government workers are being offered. They got to keep most of their generous benefits, with only a couple of minor tweaks.

What the city wanted most was to turn back some of the more ridiculous restrictions on its management rights – restrictions that kept it from adapting to tough times and using its work force to maximum effect. It succeeded. Credit where it's due: This time at least, the Ford administration got 'er done.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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