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Who is more deluded: Rob Ford or the labour unions?

Rob Ford’s first—and nastiest—fight will be with organized labour. The unions are saying “bring it”

(Illustration: Steve Brodner)

The garbage strike of 2009 wasn’t just about trash. That summer, labour sparked a fuse that would crackle and sizzle for the next year and a half, lighting Rob Ford’s path to mayoral victory. The fuse is still burning, and the expected detonation has the potential not only to release organized labour’s grip on city hall, but to force an overhaul of labour’s relationship with employers across the country.

There was virtually no public sympathy for the strike from the outset. Many of us already knew that city workers enjoyed a fortress of entitlements, including guaranteed wage increases and ironclad job security. The sticking point of the strike—preserving the right to bank unused sick days and collect on them upon retirement—was where outsiders felt entitlement crossed over to obscenity. Especially during a recession. Organized labour, once the white knight of the downtrodden, had become the establishment itself: a cartel of unaccountable elites that could hold the city hostage at their discretion.

It didn’t help that David Miller had been waltzing with the unions since first running for mayor in 2003. Through two elections, he’d received the political endorsement and resources (both human and financial) of the powerful Toronto and York Region Labour Council, an umbrella group for hundreds of unions, including the two striking locals with whom he was now negotiating. You had to wonder whose side he was really on.

After 39 days and much posturing, a deal was struck that eviscerated Miller’s already diminishing credibility. Among other sundry gifts, senior workers could continue to bank sick days through a grandfather clause, and all workers received scheduled pay increases totalling six per cent over three years. The entire event felt like kabuki theatre, wherein Miller played the tough guy as he winked at his buddies across the table.

When it was over, Mark Ferguson, president of the Toronto Civic Employees Union (TCEU) Local 416, and Ann Dembinski, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 79, emerged from the ashes of battle to blithely announce that the strike had set labour relations back decades. To most Torontonians, the irony was thick: the last thing taxpayers cared about at that moment was how to keep the unions happy.

Canada’s labour laws and union protections are so strong as to be globally unique. We live in the only country where a person can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. That’s understood to be a rights violation everywhere else organized labour exists, including all of Europe. Here, union members must pay their dues, and a decade of polling suggests that a super-majority of them are opposed to the idea of their money being used to fund political action and activism. According to John Mortimer of LabourWatch, an employee rights group, no other country allows a unionized worker to be fired from their job should they refuse to fund political activities. As such, it’s tough to know whether labour leaders in Toronto really do have the support of the majority of workers they represent. Rob Ford is no doubt hoping they don’t.

Ford’s mayoral campaign—aggressive, populist and startlingly sparse on detail—was, of course, all about saving Torontonians heaps of money. And there is only one way to get that done: dramatically renegotiate or void union contracts. City hall’s largest line item is the cost of organized labour. So Ford’s platform centred on two promises: eliminating the city’s fair wage policy and privatizing garbage collection. Those two things alone are understood by the leaders of organized labour as a full-on frontal assault on their legal and political standing here and across the country. If the relevant unions lose one or both of these battles, it will change the economic landscape for good. As a result, union leaders and their allies on city council are already preparing to defend themselves.

So when will the battle begin? Many believe that Ford will act as quickly as he can, while voters still feel the pulse of their decision and his mandate is strongest. His promise to eliminate the fair wage policy—with an eye to generating savings of $80 million a year—would be a logical place to start, assuming our new mayor has the stomach for it and can prove the savings are there to be had.

  • Pee

    One good thing about Ford brash and uncouth style, is that it will serve us great when dealing with these big nasty bully unions who claim they alook after people’s interest.

    Yeah!! Let’s hear it for a bigger bully called FORD! Now you have met your match, no more weasel called Miller to deal with. Run them down, FORD!

  • Lawrence

    I know who’s more deluded…John Mraz and Torontolife for always spinning these stories against Rob Ford!!!

    He has not made his move yet on this issue and the criticism and skepticism is already there. I’ll bet that you weren’t predicting what David Miller would do with the city workers when we endured almost 2 months of filth just to lie down and get steamrolled by the union. Then…to allow those same workers to collect overtime (900 hours of it!!!) to clean up the mess they caused when they walked off the job to begin with. As long as we don’t have a repeat performance like that…I’m good.

    Perhaps the doom and gloom picture you paint is just to get people to respond…either way…it’s pretty clear your position on all this. The election is over. Let it go. Let Ford do his thing and judge him in 4 years.

  • CRITIC

    Well said PEE & LAWRENCE!!

    In a nutshell, thats all Toronto Lif eis away – to provoke us. Dont let them get the better of ya: At least me know that ford wont be run over and give in like how David Miller, our worse mayor in history did with this city workers and the city. So yeah, Toronto Life position is clear, but lets see ford come out the winner when he fire them all and get people who really wants to work!

  • E G for example

    Lawrence #2, I don’t know what article you read, but this one seemed, if anything, pretty pro-Ford (and certainly anti-Toronto public sector unions).

    “… a scenario that Ford should be prepared for if he’s committed to making the city solvent and livable for the long term.”

    That reads to me as a pretty straight-up endorsement of Ford taking a tough line with unions.

    Also:
    “Let Ford do his thing and judge him in 4 years.”
    Most problems caused by Miller can be attributed to exactly this kind of attitude among the citizens: Elect, then ignore.

  • Marcy

    you’re all morons. Really.

  • Bill Malcolm

    This is nothing more than knee-jerk union-bashing (and Miller-bashing) thinly disguised as a critique of Rob Ford. The conservative elite represented by Toronto Life won’t be happy until all public sector jobs are farmed out to private interests that pay minimum wage with no benefits. This is not good public policy.

  • David

    F the unions! More power to Rob Ford – the only honest politician!!!

  • JP

    Shame on John Mraz

    “Clearly Ford believes that the days of worker exploitation are long gone” Unionised work places are one of the few arenas where women are paid equally to men for the work they do. Long live the fair wage policy!

  • Mihee

    Et Tu, Toronto Life?

    As for the majority of the commenters here, Unions were created to protect “the little guy” (that Ford lies about “respecting”) from corporate interests — read the long history of how organized labour (that our ancestors fought hard for) lifted us out of inhumane working conditions. To characterize them as “bullies” when they’re fighting the real bullies on our behalf is just ignorant.

    But go ahead and continue to swallow the real elite’s self-serving propaganda and hate the people who are there to fight for your rights while worshiping Ford and all his obscenely rich cronies who want us all working for them like slaves in some economic protectorate zone in Indonesia — I hope you all enjoy sweat-shops and working till you die (or begging when you’re sick) with your little ones slaving away at your side because that’s where your narrow-minded, school-yard name-calling is bringing us!

  • Ivy

    Miller is our worst mayor ever? It always shocks me what a short memory people have. Other than the trash strike, Miller has a good track record. He helped bring our city back into the black while simultaneously working to bring up the quality of life for many citizens with more accessible transit, revitalization of low income areas, etc. So far, all I see Ford doing is costing us money by canceling a transit plan that already have millions of dollars invested into it and cutting out a car tax that brings us enormous revenue, while making negligible cuts like trimming councillor budgets and cutting out coffee and snacks at meetings.
    I’m still holding my breath until he pulls something significantly positive out of the bag. And I really hope he doesn’t succeed with the fair wage policy because that sets a dangerous precedent.

  • John Duncan

    I’m curious why you’ve decided to ignore the union that is a major problem, aka the police.
    aka The workers who represent the largest portion of the City’s budget.
    aka The workers who have received the largest pay raises over the last decade or so.
    aka Rob Ford’s target for 100 unnecessary and expensive new positions while every other department faces budget cuts and ongoing understaffing.

    Ford’s not really interested in sustainable financing of the City’s needs, he’s just an extremist ideologue who can’t do basic math, and is fully comfortable with the poor continuing to get poorer.

    The public unions definitely haven’t been doing themselves any PR favours lately, fighting for their (sometimes extravagant) entitlements and then declaring that they won at the end of each bargaining session. They’ve left the crumbling middle-class and exploding low-income citizens asking why union workers get paid so much instead of the real question: why they themselves are paid so little and offered so little job security by their ever-richer bosses.

  • McD

    I recommend everyone go to the Fair Wage Office site and actually look at it because the Labour movements spins it for what it is not and most people don’t bother to actually look. It is quite simply a Construction Union subsidy program and says virtually nothing about any other group of workers. On top of that for all Building Work the Building Trades Union allies to Miller have a complete labour monopoly that disqualifies the vast majority of qualified GTA contractors and workers from even bidding on work they pay for with their taxes. To use the word “Fair” in refernce to the FWP it is perverse as it is actually a policy of discrimination and a barrier to entry against anyone who does want to join up with Miller’s private sector political buddies. Construction Union monoply is bad news for any democracy in case anyone hasn’t been reading the continuous flow of corruption stories coming out of the union only Quebec construction industry. If Ford doesn’t put an end to it Toronto is going down the same rotten road.

  • Alain

    Funny how most anti-Ford commenters claim he’s against the poor–yet most poor people I know prefer him over the other candidates, who stood for unions and city workers. These are not poor people — they have some of the best wages and benefits in the world. I for one believe Ford represents my interests as a low-income Torontonian far better than Miller and Pantalone and even Smitherman.

  • Laura Ellen Schon

    Mayor Ford is the worst nightmare for the City of Toronto unions. However if Ford is a mensch, he will conduct himself with outmost respect for the union leadership and negotiate fair, decent wage/benefit plans for all the City of Toronto unions. The unions will also have to be reasonable in their demands and compromise on some issues that are not priority. As soon as the first union contract expires we, the people of Toronto will get to see how Mayor Ford handles the situation. We know we don’t want a management/union war. If Ford thinks that a long drawn strike will save the City money; yes it will but at what ultimate cost to the taxpayers of the City of Toronto?

  • Leo

    Wait, people are reading this as an anti-Ford story? Wow. How much of a Ford fan do you have to be to read this YAY YAY FORD FORD piece as anti-Ford?

    The union lost last summer. New hires don’t get the sick bank anymore. Thank you, Miller.

    OTOH, cheering for union-busting for the sake of union-busting, like Toronto Life does here, is ridiculous.

    Disclaimer: I work in the private sector. We don’t have a union. But some jobs are naturally suited for unionization. I support city unions.

  • Arlene

    Remember that the people who worked during H1N1, SARS and Hepatitis A outbreak, to immunize you, listen and take your harrassment are all City Workers. These workers are now making preparations for a LOOOONG STRIKE and will be better able to handle not having an income, but ARE YOU?

  • Irish

    Most people barely noticed the H1N1, Sars etc – that was the media. Your average worker in an office or plant didn’t have time to get an immunization and are not quite ready to bestow sainthood on unionized workers or grant them more money and/or benefits than they are worth. Perhaps unions wouldn’t be necessary at all if our labour laws properly covered all workers, unionized or not, so that ALL people who work full time can get the pay and benefits they deserve.
    Companies are paying like crap now and most people just can’t afford the tax increases to pay for unionized staff who make more for doing less. Yes, we have noticed that most government workers don’t really seem to be exactly sweating. The gap between the have and the have-not has to be reduced somehow, and having some people unionized and others paying for it is not the way.

  • Jimbo

    It is amazing really that no one asks any of the following and how the media continue to spin the truth.

    1 – Why did Doug Holiday support the agreement that ended the garbage strike? Because, as he stated it was the best the city would have achieved and ended the sick time gratuity – you can’t take away what people had previously accrued, and an arbitrator would not have awarded it. Miller succeeded yet the media made out that he had rolled over to the unions – yet they like Mel Lastman who consistently rolled over.

    2 – Toronto property taxes are the lowest in the GTA by substantial amounts – The Toronto Sun (of all media) showed last year that the average value home $350k pays around $3,000 in tax in Toronto compared to the next lowest – Markham at $3,500. Take the education component out and the taxes are more like 2000 vs. 2500 – in other words the next lowest to Toronto pays 25% more. So if there is a gravy train in Toronto, it must be a ocean of gravy every where else. BTW, Toronto has the highest level of public services offered as well.

    3- Toronto has the highest percentage of unionized public sector employees. Is privatization cheaper? If you believe the spin it is the employees driving up the costs – privatization includes a profit margin, yes the workers will get yes, the owners of the companies will get more and the taxpayers will pay the same or more – so who does that help?

    John Mraz is shovelling the same crap as all the other media shovel – lets get the workers pounding out each other and lowering their wages and the rich get more and more.

    How stupid are we? Oh I forgot, our saviour is Rob Ford, so that kind of explains our collective IQ.

  • Adrian

    The days of the oldie unions are numbered! spread the word!

  • janes

    The Unions have faced far worse opponents the Ford, give me a break. Ford another wind bag like cherry , talks a good game but we shall see if he can do the walk.

  • Joan

    DOWN with the Unions!!!! lazy PEOPLE, DOING substandard work, and expect to always have a job because of the BULLY unions BOSSESS defend their lazy behaviour. I’LL GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE IF THE GARBAGE IS NOT EXACTLY SO, LINED UP IT’S NOT PICKED UP AND THEN IF IT IS PICKED UP OUR GARBAGE CANS ARE LITERALLY THROWN ON THE ROAD OR LAWN AND IF THEY BREAK WE THE CITIZENS HAVE TO PURCHASE A NEW GARBAGE BIN BECAUSE THE UNIONIZED EMPLOYEE DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH RESPECT FOR OTHERS PROPERTY YOU DON’T GIVE A DAMN. BECAUSE IT’S NOT YOUR PROBLEM. ENOUGH!!! PRIVATIZE THE GARBAGE COLLECTION AND GET THESE LAZY, UNDERWORKED UNIONIZED OVERPAID, AND UNDERWORKED IDIOTS TO KNOW WHAT LIFE IS REALLY LIKE FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO WORK AND DO A GOOD DAYS JOB, I m very glad that CUPE 416 lOCAL PRESIDENT Mark Ferguson understands that CUPE is not an employer nor do they have the revenue to purchase capital equipment and THEY DO NOT HAVE THE ABILITY TO MANAGE A WORKFORCE, BUT THEY CERTAINLY HAVE THE ABILITY TO DESTROY THE EMPLOYER AND ATTEMPT TO BRING EVERY CITIZEN TO THEIR KNEES THINKING WE CAN’T DO WITH OUT THEM, OUT WITH THE UNIONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!MR. Ford YOU HAVE OUR SUPPORT. GO FOR IT! WE ARE BEHIND YOU AND NO UNION BETTER COME TO OUR FRONT STEPS PROMISING THE PEARLS OF THE VIRGIN YOU ARE LAZY AND UNWELCOME, WE DON’T WANT YOU ANYMORE GET OUT!!!!. please do not publicize my e-mail I don’t want my house bombed or my children threatend for my (our) opinions.

  • don

    So you have a low income and so by bringing others to your poverty level will make you feel better but your still going to be a loser who maybe earns chum change because you have no ambition to do better for yourself and Ford is not worrying about you , he has his own agenda.

  • ron

    janes name calling just makes you look ignorant !
    You don’t know anything about the job those people do and as for tossed cans and so on, they were probably tossed because your a pig, and don’t bother putting bags in your green buckets and the shit and filth from your dump oozes all over and down the workers pants and maybe thats why your filth bucket got fired up your lawn.

  • dan

    I knew a Rob Ford would come along sooner or later but later thankfully as I am close to retirement.
    Always took pride in my job and never thought the city owed me a living at any time during my employment.

    I feel saddened by the abuse I am now getting from the public , I never wanted a strike to happen knowing it would seal our fate , knowing that when the contract was renewed in etobicoke our days were numbered.

    But I have a matter of months to work and I will continue to do a good job to spite all the negetive feelings toward city workers.

  • nomada

    If Torontonians have anything to be thankful to the unions is Rob Ford. He would not be the mayor of the city if it wasn’t for the abuse the citizens suffered last summer. It left a big nasty scar and IMO he is only there because of the resentment the strike left in the public.Why else would you vote for somebody like Ford? But still, pro-union readers here don’t get it eh? Do you really but really think the unions are protecting the little guy from the nasty, abusive city government?? Please! Unions lost their north eons ago…and history repeats itself in strange ways: now unions are abusing the taxpayers the same way industries abused workers in the 19th century when the unions had to be created. Voracious for benefits and perks we can no longer support.So, if we don’t get unions what they want we are all going to work in sweat shop conditions? I say, pro-union readers should have a little more respect for fellow readers,get real and think about fairness to taxpayers while they enjoy one of their unused paid sick days Miller gave them.

  • dan

    The well fed millionaire conservative Rob Ford cares about the working stiffs of Toronto, Give me a break !
    The only things a conservative does is look after his/her fellow rich friends and if you think that is not true, then your plain dumb and have no idea how the political system works. As for the big bad unions if they got some benefits and a decent paycheck that was not given to them as a good will gesture they fought for it as a whole something others should copy and organize themselves so they are not taken advantage of. Rather than crying about what the other guy is getting , go out there and get it for yourselves , and stop whining bitches .

  • harris

    I’m surprised Ford is even taking his salary , he should give it to charity like his brother Dough and get a nice tax write off. You can’t be dumb enough to think that a rich guy has YOUR interests in mind.

    Or maybe you are that dumb !

    One thing though my congratulations to his spin doctors making municipal workers the scapegoats for all the incompetent former regimes and their heavy hands in the public’s cookie jar.

    Ok so lets get rid of all the workers and replace them with cheaper workers making chum change, that makes everyone happy we all are down to poverty and the Fords come up smelling like roses for saving a few bucks that won’t even touch the looming budget of 2012.

    But it does make some feel good , specially the well to do who keep wealthy only because the majority is kept poor and pay all the damn taxes and have no write offs to save any money , yes cheer the fat slobs sitting on their asses getting richer while YOU remain in the same place you were ten years ago.

  • Scott

    Nicely written John and straight to the point: there was a time, before Provincial labour laws had teeth, that unions generally made our lives better. No longer. Your explanation of Doug Holyday’s reworked bidding process in Etobicoke clearly shows how new thinking, sorely lacking under Miller, can be win-win for all of us. Time to move past old stereotypes, folks!

  • dan

    Rob and Dough Ford don’t respect anyone short of those who advance their agendas and those who put money in their pockets.
    The Ford brothers have already showen their true colours by kissing up the the police union and giving them a 11.5 pay increase, meanwhile no mention of getting rid of that paid duty gravy train.

    If they were really about saving Toronto tax payers money they would do it across the board with all Toronto unions.
    But we see them booting people out of their homes and selling off city houses paying a retired councillor 25 grand who already got a 100 grand hand shake and a very nice pension now back on the city payroll as a one man board booting people out of their homes.

    Seems odd with 18 billion in real estate holdings they decide to go after the very people who they claim to be looking after and respecting.

    These label company operators seem to know nothing of how to operate a city.

    Any jackass could do what they are doing.

    I thought I was going to see some real action here and getting rid of properties that are actually costing the city money to operate.

    Putting some city employees out of work while handing others sweet pay packages shows me they are just wimps and while they pretend to be fearless they are cowards taking the easy road , while leaving the real consumers of vast amounts of tax revenue un touched.

  • Jason

    When too much money and power fall in the wrong hands is one corruption starts – whether it is a union or a corporation.

 

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