An exclusive op-ed for the Town Crier by Mayor David Miller
This opinion piece by T.O’s mayor offers his thoughts on the strike
The strike by CUPE local 79 and TCEU local 416 was an extremely difficult time for the people of Toronto, city employees and city council.
However, Torontonians coped remarkably well. City management and non-union staff deserve immense credit for the work they did to keep the city moving while 30,000 people were off the job.
One question I was repeatedly asked during the labour disruption was why it had to happen at all. Now that we’ve reached a negotiated settlement with our employees, I believe it’s a good time to answer that question.
The unions went on strike because they wanted parity with provincewide contracts like the one awarded to the Toronto Police Service by an arbitrator. Such settlements, reached between 2006 and 2008, followed a provincial pattern of wage increases of at least 3 percent per year. With benefit improvements, those contracts saw employment costs for Ontario cities climb in the range of 11 and 12 percent over a three-year period. In the midst of a global recession this was something the City of Toronto simply couldn’t afford. We wanted to be fair to our employees and give them a modest wage increase to ensure they can afford to live in Toronto. But any settlement also had to be affordable for the city and allow the delivery of public services to be efficient and effective. In addition, we needed to constrain the growth of benefits and eliminate the outdated and expensive practice of banking sick days.
But the unions wouldn’t budge. They wanted wage increases of 3 percent per year plus benefit improvements. They refused to even discuss the sick bank issue. When the city said it couldn’t meet their demands, leaders of the two union locals put their members on the picket lines.
So what was achieved after a six-week strike? The unions settled for less than half of what they were demanding when they walked off the job. With wages and benefits, the new three-year contract amounts to a compensation increase of 5.6 percent. And the sick bank has been eliminated through a combination of grand-parenting (something that’s been done in every municipality where the practice has been terminated) and an optional buyout. In the end, the city met its bargaining goals.
But meeting those goals did not come easily. Two weeks into the strike, the unions were still refusing to talk about the sick bank or to consider any wage settlement with increases of less than three percent per year.
Recognizing that extraordinary steps were necessary to break the logjam, I called a special meeting of council’s Employee and Labour Relations Committee on July 8. At that meeting city negotiators were given an explicit mandate with the flexibility to settle on wage increases in the range of 2 percent a year.
City councillors emerged from that meeting virtually unanimous in their support of the bargaining strategy. Two days later on July 10, I went public with our negotiating position to make Toronto residents — and rank-and-file union members who’d been kept in the dark about what the city was offering — aware of what was on the bargaining table.
Negotiations changed dramatically after that. Within days one local moved away from its position that the sick bank could not and would not be discussed. That movement was critical to the final settlement. Although local 416 did not agree to the final offer of wage increases until 7:30 a.m. on July 29, most other issues were essentially resolved well before the strike’s final weekend.
I was pleased with the settlement, which enabled our unionized employees to return to work and provide the important services Torontonians need. Unfortunately, some councillors have irresponsibly argued the settlement did not meet the city’s bargaining goals (and then voted to prolong the strike indefinitely).
Such statements are absolutely false. Not only did our negotiators meet the city’s goals in terms of wages; they were given authority to negotiate grand-parenting of the sick bank last September and did exactly that. Ending the sick bank will save the city an estimated $140-million over the next five years, which is no doubt why a free-thinking councillor like former Etobicoke mayor, Doug Holyday, supported this settlement.
Toronto residents showed incredible patience during a very trying time. Once again, I want to thank them for it. And I want to welcome all our public employees back to work.