Transit workers in Canada's largest city face losing the right to strike as the province moves toward declaring their work an essential service.
The McGuinty government took the first steps on Friday to banning Toronto Transit Commission workers from walking off the job, by announcing consultations with management and labour leaders, both of whom oppose the idea.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford asked the province earlier this week to introduce legislation banning transit workers from striking. Last month, city council voted 28-17 in favour of making future strike action by transit union members illegal.
"We're responding today to the city's request to make the TTC an essential service, and we're taking that request seriously," Labour Minister Charles Sousa said in an interview.
More than 100,000 Torontonians rely on public transit to get around the city every day, so when workers walk off the job, as they did briefly in 2008, commuters are left stranded and the economy loses an estimated $50-million a day.
Mr. Sousa would not say when the government plans to introduce legislation but he acknowledged that time is of the essence. The first of three collective agreements with unionized transit workers expires on March 31.
"We're going to be acting pretty quickly on these discussions," he said.
Many people, however, think depriving transit workers of their right to strike is a bad idea, including TTC general manager Gary Webster and Councillor Joe Mihevc. The critics argue that if union and management both know that their disagreements are ultimately going to arbitration, there is less incentive to compromise.
"Frankly, at the end of the day it is a populist response that will not really solve the basic issue that Torontonians care about, which is uninterrupted service," Mr. Mihevc said in interview. "What will inevitably happen is tough issues will not be resolved at the bargaining table but will instead by imposed through binding arbitration."
Mr. Webster was not available for comment. Brad Ross, a spokesman for him, said Mr. Webster is prepared to co-operate with the government to help it "craft whatever legislation is most appropriate," even though his personal views have not changed.
Bob Kinnear, president of Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, was not available for comment on Friday.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has made no secret of his interest in seeing an end to disruptive transit strikes. In the lead-up to the municipal election, he said he wants to see Toronto's mayoral candidates debate whether the city's transit workers should lose the right to strike.
"I don't think there's ever been a better time for a really good public debate on this issue," Mr. McGuinty said.
Former mayor David Miller accused the Premier of meddling in the municipal election.
After ending a two-day transit strike in 2008 with back-to-work legislation, Mr. McGuinty said his government would not declare the TTC an essential service unless Mr. Miller requested such a move. But city council later narrowly defeated a motion and the status quo remained until last month.
Mr. Miller had said that making transit an essential service in which labour disputes would go straight to third-party arbitration would be disastrous for the city's finances.
A 2008 report by the C.D. Howe Institute estimated that such an arrangement could cost the city an extra $23-million over a three-year contract because arbitrators tend to award more generous salary increases when workers are denied the right to strike.