A Survivor's Guide to the upcoming Toronto civic strike

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

3 comments

piling up the trash
The streets of Toronto could soon be transformed into a sewage dump if civic strike becomes reality

By all accounts, a civic strike is about to hit the City of Toronto. The labour dispute is bound to impact essential services such as garbage pickup, daycares etc... Within a matter of days, there will be a lot of folks boiling mad at each other and demanding this whole thing come to an end.

I've only lived through one strike in my life and depending on who you spoke to, the 2007 civic dispute was either known as "Sam's Strike" or "CUPE's Strike".

Regardless of what it was called, it had to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of my career. That's because people I had formed good working relationships with were suddenly calling me every name under the sun. However, whatever they said to me paled by comparison to what the spewed out at the Mayor.

I recall one bitter and twisted woman who worked on the 6th floor of City Hall. She was the worst of them all. She would regularly shout out obscenities at the Mayor as he came to City Hall, but her comments were often personal and downright mean. She would push her face up in the window of the Mayor's disabled-equipped van and say "we don't need a quad for a mayor." It was all very nasty, hurtful and a real eye opener to me regarding how painful and difficult a labour dispute can be.

Now that we're on the eve of a possible strike in Toronto, I thought I'd provide some insight into what all the various factions might expect over the coming weeks. I've looked at it from the perspective of the union, management and citizens. You can call it a bit of a Civic Strike Survivor's Guide.

Firstly, if you're the union, here is what you're going to need to do in order to be successful. These are in no particular order:

  • Sway public opinion: In the 2007 Vancouver civic strike, the union convinced the public they were hard done by and successfully negotiated a 17.5% pay increase. Once public opinion began to sway against the union, the strike ended almost immediately. Media stories of nails and broken glass being left if city parks that were being voluntarily mowed by parents and residents was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
  • Walking Away: The union will need to convince the public it was the City of Toronto that "walked away" from negotiations. Get ready to hear a lot of "we're ready to sit down at the negotiating table, however, the City just doesn't want to come back and speak to us." You always want to be the one that is still "at the table" as it helps to sway public opinion. In Vancouver, CUPE went so far as to rent a room in a local hotel, fill half of the boardroom table with their negotiators, then call the media in to take a look. This was a very successful media strategy indeed.
  • Blame the politicians: It is always important to suck in the politicians into the middle of the negotiations. Nobody knows who the "negotiating team" are, but they do know the names of their mayor and ward councillor. If they have some serious political skin in the game, they will feel more pressured to have the negotiating team put more goodies on the table. No political involvement means it is less likely the union will get everything they want.
  • Strike needed: Remember, the union brass are politicians as well. They are there because they got elected by their members and need to show that unions remain relevant. A series of politely negotiated contracts could very well undermine the long-term need for a union. A short strike that's resolved quickly will remind the brothers and sisters their union worked hard on their behalf and they need them now more than ever.
  • Don't talk wages: The union never wants to say a public sector strike is about higher wages. Rather, they want to talk about increased benefits and working conditions. Taxpayers shouldn't be fooled. These "benefits" are hidden costs which are eventually borne by city taxpayers and can often run in the millions of dollars. It's never to the advantage of the union to be pushing hard for higher wages when the taxpayers footing the bill are hurting in an economic pinch - so don't expect to hear much on that front over the coming weeks.
  • Swat team: The civic unions are constantly in negotiations across the country and they have professional teams that know how to take advantage of weak negotiators. Whereas for Canada's big cities, they only deal with the threat of a strike once every four years or so. As a result, no matter how good you think your city negotiators are, they'll never match the expertise, skillset and media prowess of the civic unions. You can expect that CUPE has put their best negotiators on this one.
  • Trot out the victims: The union brass are great at finding people who've been negatively impacted by the strike. Rest assured that in the early days, these victims will be trotted out in front of the cameras to demonstrate how evil council is for not negotiating in "good faith". Expect to see the requisite single mother who doesn't have daycare on the nightly news, on a nightly basis. She won't be asking the union to back down, she'll be calling upon the Mayor and city hall to simply put an end to this strike a.k.a. just give the unions what they want.

As far as management goes:

  • Keep politicians out of it: The reason you have a professional and experienced negotiating team is to do just that, negotiate. The moment the politicians get in the middle of negotiating, it's the beginning of the end for the City's bargaining position. It will be tough for Mayor David Miller and councillors to remain silent, especially when citizens are going ape, but it needs to be done in order to keep the strike short and as painless as possible. However, rest assured that some of the civic politicians who get major donations from CUPE and other unions will be given their marching orders once the strike has begun. You can expect they will openly mock and taunt their council colleagues and management to "get to the table and settle this strike".
  • Media blackout: The best thing management can do is negotiate a media blackout (apologies to all my media buddies). The less a collective agreement is negotiated in the media, the better. Nobody ever wins when various positions and arguments are discussed on the nightly news.
  • Point person: Assign a good communicator as spokesperson for the City, and stick to it. They should be well-briefed on the impacts citizens are facing and do their best to give options on how to relieve the inconveniences of a civic strike.
  • Public opinion: Generally speaking, public opinion is normally on the side of management and not the public sector unions. Try to keep it that way.
  • Don't blame the media: All too often management and the politicians will blame the media for the bad coverage citing that many reporters are also members of a union, hence the biased reporting. All I can say is...don't go there. This is not only hard to quantify, but my experience demonstrates this simply isn't true.
  • Strike length: Management realize that the union brass need to show relevance, and a short strike is a good way to do that. They often factor this into their negotiating strategy. They will roll the dice assuming the union won't want to go out for a long time as it costs them millions in strike pay for every week the strike drags on.
  • Garbage: If you can reduce the impact of no garbage pickup, you will reduce the public's concern and further reduce the union's bargaining position. Get ready to open up tennis courts and other public areas where garbage can be temporarily dumped. It will help to relieve the pressure.

Now if you're a Toronto citizen who wants to keep this strike short and sweet, but don't want to give the farm away:

  • Phone, phone, phone: If you're upset, make sure you pick up the phone and contact the Mayor, councillors and union brass (yes, call the union as well). Putting direct pressure on both sides and letting them know how the strike has affected you will have an impact. However, keep in mind, the city politicians are accountable to taxpayers, while the union politicians are only accountable to their members.
  • Radio talk shows: Get to the airwaves and let both sides know what you think. I can assure you that the union and management monitor this stuff very closely as it relates to their strike public relations strategy.
  • Garbage stinks: Normally garbage pickup is the biggest bargaining chip that any civic union has when it comes to negotiating a collective agreement. That's why unions fight so hard to ensure cities don't privatize this service. Make provisions to ensure that you can adequately store as much garbage as you can for as long a period as possible. Go out and buy a couple of extra garbage cans before they all get gobbled up at Home Depot. This will make for great storage capacity if the strike lasts a long time. Some Vancouver residents even struck up deals with local merchants who had private garbage pickup.
  • Dave's Dispute: If you're upset with the Mayor over his handling of the strike, then simply begin calling it "Dave's Dispute".  Once that catches on in Toronto, the Mayor will realize he now has some political skin in the game and will be less likely to stay away from the bargaining table. This could end up meaning it will cost you more in property taxes in the long-run, but the strike will be shorter in duration.
  • Weather: Pray for rain. The union never likes to go out on strike in the winter or when the weather is bad. If you do the occasional rain dance with your family, it may well help to reduce the length of the strike and help to keep the stink of rotting garbage to a minimum. Warm sunny days are not helpful in keeping strikes short.

As we near the strike deadline, I am reminded of a post I wrote a while back.  It was about a saying that a fine gentlemen once said to me that went something like this..."if you can find the service in your yellow-pages directory, you have to ask why city hall is delivering it." A good question indeed...and one that will likely become top-of-mind in Toronto very soon. It's well worth the read.

Toronto, you're on the edge of a precipice. Let's hope for the sake of the millions of residents that could be impacted by this strike that something can be negotiated before the deadline has come and gone.

The workers can legally strike as of 12:01 am on Monday.

3 Comments

this is an excellent example of why civic services such as garbage collection should be sent out to tender. It is services such as this that provide the unions with leverage, and that is a real but never calculated cost of trash collection. Most local governments do contract this service out and Vancouver and Toronto are behind the curve.

great comment bob,you must be one of those private contractors knocking at city halls doors promising to do the work for cheaper then deliver sub-standard services while you laugh all the way to the bank.if you want non union wages go live in india or china.

The newspaper says that David Miller lives close to and passes High Park subway station every day on his way into work.

I would suggest leaving your garbage there at High Park subway station but at the Quebec Avenue entrance just north of Bloor Street West so you don't block the buses leaving from the High Park Avenue exit.

Please spread this around.

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