Meditations on the end of the Toronto city strike

Post by Eric Mang in ,

2 comments

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Eric Mang tries out one of the funky trash cans (pre-strike) in his Danforth neighbourhood

The Toronto civic strike is more or less over. Locals 416 and 79 still need to vote on the agreement, but it is expected to pass.

Details of the agreement are withheld until it is ratified. The Toronto Star and other media outlets are speculating on elements of the agreement, but I won’t bother lending credibility to these rumours until ratification.

In the next few days, pundits, pontificators and those on the left and right will discuss who won and who lost as if strike action were hockey playoffs. Similar to the attitudes of many sports fanatics, there certainly was a level of partisanship, tribalism and a dearth of critical thinking swirling around my fair city.

The corporate crowd was out in full force singing the same song in times of recession as they do in times of bounty: “lower wages, trim benefits, be happy you have a job, tra la la”. Perhaps embedded deep in many people’s Western consciousnesses is that the corporate world represents ambition, diligence, materialism; so many lionize corporate leaders, even when some of those leaders are found guilty of fraud, worker abuse, and myriad other white collar crimes. We are temporarily annoyed by the Conrad Blacks, Bernie Madoffs, and Earl Joneses, but then we’re back celebrating all that’s pure and “civilizing” about the corporate world.

They’ll do a better job with our garbage pick-up! They can build our hospitals for cheaper! There are some things the private sector does very well and it undoubtedly provides enriching (in every sense of the word), well-paying jobs for many Canadians. I think a constant assault on the private sector is unproductive merely because it supports many people’s livelihoods. But an unwavering trust in its capabilities is unreasonable. Some evidence, much of which I have presented in past blog postings, indicate that the private sector is not always the better option for delivering public services that uphold the public good.

That is, when the bottom line is the emphasis and profit is the goal, public services can suffer.

Lower wages, fewer benefits for workers, diminished services, higher costs (the P3 hospital experiments in Ontario led to much higher costs), and less accountability and transparency. These are but a few of the downsides when the private sector is entangled with the public interest.

I recognize that many Torontonians were frustrated during the five weeks of strike action, but to resort to knee-jerk reactions and demand public policy based on raw emotion rather than rational analysis and evidence is not the way to go. Indeed, I find it disturbing that some members of Toronto’s business community were silent on the practices that led to the recession but vocal when it came to government hand-outs (in the form of tax cuts and bailouts) for themselves, and then treated public sector unions with disdain for asking for fair treatment.

On to the left’s reaction. I think solidarity worked. That unions from around Toronto supported Locals 79 and 416 in the midst of some ugly comments and some reprehensible attitudes, is laudable. Solidarity is something we could all learn. When we are treated unfairly, we can band together to demand better. But some political and business leaders want us to turn on each other like caged weasels – it keeps them sated and the rest of us demoralized and divided.

CUPE could have fought a better PR war. City councillors had just given themselves a 2.4% pay increase, the city was on a hiring spree and other city unions, like police and firefighters, had successfully bargained for decent wage increases.

Moreover, Miller et al could have stopped this strike from happening back in early Spring when discussions first began. It’s not like CUPE’s requests materialized out of nowhere. More could have been said on the City’s initial inaction.

Playing on the sympathies of the citizenry would have been prudent, as I think many Torontonians recognize that a struggle to be treated fairly is a worthy struggle and that strike action is legal and a fought for feature of our society. We need these valuable public services and this strike could have served as a lesson to Torontonians about how precious city-run child care, public health nurses, garbage collection, etc are to the sound functioning of our town. Indeed, many grumbled because they realized how inconvenient, and in some cases disruptive, life could be without the tremendous work performed by our public service.

Once everything has returned to normal, I suspect that angry right-wingers will find some other object to focus their hatred on, posting mad comments to message boards, lambasting “bleeding hearts” for wanting a better world when we should just shut up and live in misery. These people can’t be easily changed, but I hope they will listen to all sides of an argument before charging off with typing fingers racing down the track while the mind is out of gas.

Our garbage will be picked up, ferries will take us to the Islands, day care and what’s left of summer camps will resume and in a few months, this whole thing will be behind us. In fact, politicians hope for voters’ short-term memories (how many of you recall the particulars surrounding the egregious economic update episode that almost resulted in the Harper government falling, until he scampered off to ask the GG to rescue him?).

And presently, Miller has no serious challenger. With the municipal election more than a year away, this summer’s strike will recede into the mists of time, lost as we’re more interested in what’s happening to us today than in dwelling on the past

2 Comments

The next Toronto election is just over a year to go, will people remember the Big Strike of '09 then? Could be, only time will tell though. Will garbage collection be an election issue then? Ditto. This contract is only for three years - until summer 2012. What will be different for the next strike? More questions than answers right now.

too much left wing commentary is creeping into this blog.

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