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A skater glides across the reflection of City Hall in Toronto on Feb. 5, 2012, as outside workers struck a tentative deal with the City of Toronto to avoid labour disruption. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)
A skater glides across the reflection of City Hall in Toronto on Feb. 5, 2012, as outside workers struck a tentative deal with the City of Toronto to avoid labour disruption. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Mayor scores a big win just when it counts Add to ...

The deal between the city and its outside workers is a big win for Mayor Rob Ford at a time when he needs one badly. Last month, he faced a revolt over his budget cuts. This month, he is facing another over his transit plans. Things are getting so far off track that some critics were calling him a lame duck only 14 months into his four-year mandate.

Now he appears to have wrung important concessions out of a major city union. What is more, he has done it without a work stoppage that had come to seem almost inevitable.

Mr. Ford is famous across the country for vowing to “stop the gravy train” and cut waste at city hall. He has made it perfectly clear since coming to office in December of 2010 that he thinks city workers are part of the gravy, that the city has far too many of them and that he would be demanding more from everyone. Governments around Canada have been watching the dispute, expecting it to set a tone as they look for sacrifices from public-service unions in a time of deficits and austerity.

The assumption since last fall is that the city would be locking out its workers to enforce a deal. City departments from garbage to city planning had been training managers to step into the shoes of unionized workers in the event of a work stoppage. The union, for its part, had been saying publicly until very recently that it believed the city was not bargaining seriously and that Mr. Ford simply wanted to make it the whipping boy in his cutback campaign.

Now this: a dramatic 12th-hour deal that came after an all-night bargaining marathon. Mr. Ford called it “fantastic” for taxpayers. “We do not have a strike and we’re going to keep this city moving.”

The irony is that a conservative mayor who rails against an overstuffed public service managed to get a deal that eluded his left-leaning, union-friendly predecessor. David Miller took a bitter 39-day strike from the same union in the summer of 2009. “Is it true the union could break Miller’s heart, but they couldn’t break yours?” one reporter asked Mr. Ford Sunday morning.

The 2009 dispute helped lay the ground for this one. The strike drained public sympathy for the city unions, making it difficult for them to plausibly use the strike threat again. They have been saying for weeks that they had no intention of striking.

The city, for its part, reacted to the events of 2009 by moving to force matters to a head early. The city is most vulnerable in the summer, when a walkout by garbage workers would mean smelly garbage piling up in heavily used public parks. The deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, said that the city would not let the union employ delaying tactics to drag out the talks till the summer again.

Instead of locking the union out, the city said that unless a deal was struck, it would simply impose new working conditions.

That put the union in a fix. Going to work on Monday morning under new, city-imposed conditions might have seemed like a tacit acceptance of them. Suddenly calling a strike in protest at the city’s hard-ball tactics would have been equally tough for the union, given they had insisted they had no strike plans. Mr. Ferguson called the city a “bully” for making the threat but stayed at the bargaining table.

We don’t know yet what that deal contains yet, but Mr. Ferguson said he had been forced to make “numerous” concessions. If so, and Mr. Ford has managed to secure big gains from a tough union rival without even an hour of strike or lockout, then it will be a significant victory indeed.

The timing could not be better. A posse of city councillors is coming after Mr. Ford over his costly insistence on putting most of the Eglinton Crosstown transit line underground. Even if he loses the looming fight over transit expansion, though, the core of Mr. Ford’s message is the claim that he, and only he, can bring a businessman’s discipline to city government. Taming the city’s old-school unions was always part of that agenda.

Mr. Ford can now argue he has helped bring city hall down from cloud cuckoo land and closer to the world where most of us work. That can’t fail to help him if he faces voters again in 2014.

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