The union chief for 8,000 city workers is guaranteeing he won't call a strike in January, a pledge virtually assuring that a widely anticipated civic labour disruption this winter would be initiated by the city.
Mr. Ferguson stated unequivocally that he would not ask the province to declare an impasse at any time during negotiations, a legal requirement before either party can call a strike or lockout.
The union assurance came a day after city negotiators asked the province to appoint a conciliator to the negotiations, the fourth of six steps in a provincially mandated process ending in labour action.
If the conciliator declares "no board" – the fifth step, which indicates that neither side is ready to reach an agreement – the union and the city would be in a position to call a work stoppage within 17 days. At this point, that day could arrive by mid-January.
"The moves by the city yesterday were clearly designed to inflame the situation further," Mr. Ferguson said. "We believe the employer has needlessly ramped up the stakes considerably. I'm not optimistic. At the same time, I do want the parties to return to the table."
He added that the city's actions signal that it has walked away from the bargaining table, but Mayor Rob Ford rejected that characterization, saying it was "factually incorrect."
"We didn't walk away from the table," he told CP24 host Stephen LeDrew on Thursday. "We're bargaining in good faith. That's what we want. That's what the taxpayers want. If the other side wants to spread stories, I can't help that."
City negotiators backed up the mayor, issuing a statement saying they remain "committed to the bargaining process."
The escalation in finger-pointing also stems from a notice the city sent to Local 416 indicating an intent to hire part-time employees across all city divisions, including paramedics, as a way of cutting down on overtime costs and burnout among current staff. The union labelled it a provocative attempt to replace full-time union employees with non-union part-timers.
"The only reason 416 objects to it is pure greed," deputy mayor Doug Holyday retorted. "They want to keep the overtime for their members. This isn't even part of the contract negotiations. They're simply trying to confuse the two."
Chair of the Employee and Labour Relations Committee, Mr. Holyday dismissed all union allegations as bluster intended to delay negotiations into summer, when a possible 416 labour action would have the most impact, leaving reeking piles of trash throughout the city.
"They just want to put the city through the same thing that they put us all through in 2009," Mr. Holyday said. "I'm told they won't even give us any dates when we ask them to meet."
While Mr. Ferguson has said repeatedly that he expects his 8,000 members to be locked out in January, the mayor contended on Thursday morning that he is looking for a deal.
"I want to come to an agreement or a deal with the union and I think that's what everybody wants," Mr. Ford said. "Nobody wants to see a strike. You know what, hopefully it doesn't go down that road. We can't be pushed around or bullied and everyone understands that. I want to make sure taxpayers get the best bang for the dollar and labour gets a fair deal."