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The Globe and Mail

Toronto, its largest union, 'close' to deal, Ford says

At the end of the day Rene Malagon pulls down the British Flag at Fort York in Toronto on March 23, 2012. The museum will be affected tomorrow if an impending indoor workers city strike is announced.

michelle siu The Globe and Mail

The City of Toronto and its largest union remained at the table Sunday, working well past a 12:01 a.m. Saturday deadline in an effort to prevent a labour disruption that would shut down municipal daycares, recreation centres and swimming pools, among other services.

Mayor Rob Ford told a radio audience Sunday after that the parties were "close" to reaching a deal.

"I was down there last night and we're close, that's all I can say," Mr. Ford said at the end of the weekly show he co-hosts with his brother, Councillor Doug Ford.

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The mayor's remarks Sunday are one of the few public signals of how the talks are progressing with CUPE Local 79, which represents 23,000 employees.

The city summoned reporters to the Sheraton Centre hotel late Saturday night for an update, but the news conference was cancelled without explanation minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

Negotiators for CUPE Local 79 and the municipal government agreed hours earlier to keep negotiating past a 12:01 a.m. Saturday deadline.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said it's unlikely the city would move to lock workers out, but he didn't rule out the possibility entirely.

Both the city and the union appeared optimistic early Saturday morning that a deal could eventually be reached.

"There are some final issues to be thrashed through," CUPE spokesman Cim Nunn said.

"It's a matter of trying to figure out a solution for a handful of outstanding issues."

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The city is looking for a similar deal to the one it reached with outdoor workers, and Mr. Holyday repeated his message that the mostly white-collar employees of Local 79 can't expect a sweeter deal than the labourers of Local 416.

However, the CUPE Local 79 negotiations are unfolding against a political backdrop that has darkened for the Ford administration since it squeezed significant concessions out of Local 416 in early February.

In that case, the city caught labour leaders off balance by threatening to unilaterally impose a new contract on a union that hadn't sought a strike mandate from its 6,000 members.

The hardball tactics paid off, winning Mr. Ford a negotiated settlement that reduced retiree benefits, loosened scheduling rules and stripped job security from workers with fewer than 15 years seniority.

CUPE says the outside workers' deal on job security was more acceptable because 70 per cent of them had been with the city for at least 15 years and will continue to have job security under the new contract.

If a similar deal is reached for inside workers, the union says, only 50 per cent of them would be covered.

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Early Saturday morning, Mr. Nunn said the union has "been doing some budging" on job security and had moved off an initial demand that inside workers with 10 years seniority get job security.

The outdoor workers' collective agreement, ratified unanimously by council, granted garbage collectors, paramedics and other outdoor workers a 6-per-cent raise over four years. The deal could save taxpayers as much as $100-million.

Since that victory, Mr. Ford has suffered a trio of council-floor drubbings, including the crushing of his subway ambitions last week.

It's not clear how the mayor's weakened stature will affect talks. As of Sunday afternoon, the city was taking a gentler approach than it had with Local 416, having not moved to impose a new contract.

CUPE Local 79 inoculated itself somewhat against that manoeuvre by holding a strike vote Tuesday.

Armed with the support of more than 85 per cent of voting members, Local 79's president promised not to join library workers on the picket line unless the city unilaterally imposed a contract.

Toronto's 2,300 library workers walked off the job last Sunday, shuttering 98 branches and halting all but some online library services. Talks in that dispute continue.

An inside workers' strike or lockout would affect an array of municipal services, including daycares, arenas, community centres, indoor swimming pools, city-run museums, building permits, routine restaurant inspections and city offices, among others.

City-run arenas and community centres would remain open to existing permit holders. For instance, learn-to-skate programs taught by city employees would be cancelled, but hockey practices or games run by outside groups renting the arena would continue.

Garbage pick-up would not be affected by the labour disruption.

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