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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.