Why are the corridors of Toronto City Hall beginning to smell a lot like burned toast?
The Toronto civic strike is now heading into its second week and by all accounts, this is shaping up to be a long, hot and stinky summer in Toronto. As each day passes, citizens are without services, staff are without wages and the politicians must contend with a growing mess - literally. As someone who's been through this all before, it's beginning to eerily look like the 2007 CUPE strike in Vancouver.
My advice to Mayor David Miller is he better enjoy the remaining days in this term, because I predict they will be his last. The smell of burned toast wafting through the corridors of Toronto City Hall is likely the scent of a Mayor who's going to face defeat in the polls next year.
In the Spring of '07, my boss, former Mayor Sam Sullivan was riding high. He had come back from the Olympic Games in Torino the previous year and had become an international media star. He was topping the polls and it appeared nothing would stop him from winning another majority government.
That is until CUPE walked out and unleashed a clever campaign against him for a couple of months. He was never able to recover from that strike and less than a year later he was challenged by his colleague Councillor Peter Ladner for the NPA mayoral nomination. On nomination day it would only take a handful of voters upset with the way the Mayor handled the strike to tip the balance in favour of his opponent - and the Mayor was toast.
I recall in the early days of the strike the Mayor was being advised by staff to say nothing. "Keep him out of the media" staff would tell me. "Ensure that he says nothing about the negotiations, he needs to stay as far away from this as possible." They assured both the Mayor and myself this was going to be a brief strike likely lasting a few weeks at most. Boy were they ever wrong.
As I sit back on the West Coast and watch Mayor Miller struggle through this civic strike, I have many flashbacks. I'm left wondering whether Miller is being provided advice by City management, and whether he's actually listening to it?
The big difference between Miller and former Mayor Sam Sullivan is that the former waded right into this strike from the beginning. For weeks the media and Sullivan's Vision/COPE political opponents accused Sullivan of being in hiding and "not showing leadership" to settle the strike. That's when he began to speak publicly and comment on the state of negotiations. That's when the union had him right where they wanted him.
In contrast, since the Toronto strike began, Miller has regularly spoken to the media and even provides briefings on strike negotiations. Something that is normally considered a no no if you speak to labour negotiation experts. This is no Mayor in hiding. Rather, he's been open, accessible and is now going to carry the impact of this strike as political baggage into the next election.
As a politician, it's your natural instinct to want to get in there and solve this dispute. That's why I'm confident Miller's staff likely advised him to let the negotiating team handle this, and it will be over sooner rather than later. They likely cringe every time he calls a media conference or does another interview. As a result of that accessibility, Miller has now become the face of this strike - for better or worse. And I can assure the Mayor there isn't much "better" the longer this strike drags on.
In advance of the strike, clearly Miller already had a lot of detractors. It's something that comes with the territory when you've been Mayor for a while. However, for the most part he was able to manage them as only an incumbent Mayor in power could. This labour dispute will completely change that dynamic overnight. And if you read the various blogs and comments making their way through the blogosphere, the transformation has now begun.
As I stated earlier, Vancouver's former Mayor was riding high in the polls prior to the civic strike. Despite this, as his Chief of Staff, I was clearly not enamoured with the prospect of a civic strike. I knew it would inflict damage, but had been assured that most of the staff were not in favour of a long-dispute, if any at all.
As each week passed, the Mayor's support began to erode. You can bet the union was more than aware of the political ramifications on a Mayor they didn't politically support. Mayor Miller is now in the same boat that's beginning to spring a few too many holes to patch up in time before next year's election.
With each comment he makes about how upset he is at CUPE for not coming back to the table with another offer, Miller is digging his hole deeper and deeper. In a matter of weeks, the hole will be so deep that his opponents will merely have to begin the process of burying him in it. Which shouldn't be too difficult.
Mr. Mayor, speaking as someone who's been there, my best advice is for you to enjoy your remaining days. Enjoy the ceremonies, the pomp and circumstance and all the media attention. Because as former Mayor, you'll be looking back at it all with nothing but fond memories.