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Big Labour and the Old Left were in full cry this week when the Toronto Transit Commission proposed to save money by turning over cleaning work at two bus garages to a private company.

John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, said the TTC was creating "poverty jobs."

If employers like the TTC try to pay the lowest possible wages, "then the middle class in this city and this country disappears and we become a nation of paupers."

Bob Kinnear, the bolshie head of the TTC union, said that "I'm not prepared to slit the throat of my children" and "that's what we're doing here."

York Centre Councillor Maria Augimeri called the idea an "Orwellian nightmare of Animal Farm where we eat each other in the barnyard, where the weak are preyed on."

Scarborough Centre Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker said that: "Some people at City Hall want to impoverish everybody. When you make everybody poor, everybody will be poor, and that's not the type of city I want to live in."

Steady on, people. What is being proposed here is hardly the stuff of nightmares. The TTC's move to outsource the cleaning would displace 44 unionized positions in the first year by giving the work to a private contractor, but no union members would be out on the street. They would be assigned to other jobs instead. If the outsourcing goes well, the TTC hopes to contract out bus cleaning in eight TTC garages, saving $4.3-million a year, but again all those workers would enjoy job protection.

Andy Byford, the sharp Brit who now leads the TTC, is no Attila. He has made staff morale and employee relations a priority since taking over in February, travelling the system to talk to drivers, mechanics and fare-takers. He proposed the outsourcing with the greatest reluctance because he is in a tight spot.

The city, fighting to control costs, has warned him not to expect any more money to cover the cost of rising ridership, which has reached record levels. The provincial government, in its own grim struggle to cut a huge deficit, is tapped out. Mr. Byford quite rightly feels that he cannot raise fares more than the rate of inflation until the TTC finds a way to deliver better service. Accordingly, the TTC board has given approval in principle to an increase of just five cents. He doesn't feel he should make service worse by killing bus routes or shortening hours either.

"In this context, with a constrained fiscal regime, a flat-lined subsidy and ever-increasing riders… we do need to make difficult decisions," he told the board.

Cleaning is an obvious place to look for savings. TTC cleaners start at $21.06 an hour and rise to a maximum of $27.66 after two years, far more than private-sector cleaners earn. "That generosity doesn't come out of our pockets," said Don Valley West Councillor John Parker. "It comes out of the pockets of the people we serve. It comes from either the fare box or our taxpayers."

Etobicoke-Lakeshore Councillor Peter Milczyn reminded the board that the TTC is a service, not an employment agency. It should treat its employees fairly, but put its customers first.

Many of those customers are just the kind of working-class folk who Mr. Kinnear and Mr. Cartwright claim to champion. The TTC is their lifeline. By fighting the outsourcing, said TTC chair Karen Stintz, impressive again in this exchange, "you're asking people making minimum wage to pay more so we can have premium wages."

That's simply not fair. Wrapping up the debate on the outsourcing proposal, which passed 4-3, she told her critics that it's not the TTC's job to save the middle-class. It is to "manage within the limited resources we have to provide the most service we can to the most number of people we can." It would be hard to describe the TTC's challenge more succinctly.

She also reminded Mr. Kinnear that the TTC approached his union and asked it to put in a competitive bid on the bus cleaning. It would have given unionized workers about $18 an hour, less than they earn now but considerably more than private cleaners are likely to get. She says he turned her down flat.