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New Socialist Webzine

Toronto Municipal Workers Under Attack: An Interview

Over 25 000 unionized workers at the City of Toronto, members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 79 and 416, along with Toronto Public Library workers in CUPE Local 4948, are under attack by right-wing mayor Rob Ford. A lockout seems likely and will be a "historic test for labour." In late December 2011, David Camfield discussed the situation with two members of CUPE 79, Julia Barnett and Peter Lynch.

DC: What's the current situation in bargaining for CUPE members at the City of Toronto?

JB: From day one, it was clear the employer wants at least 10% benefits cuts, at least 10% wage cuts, and to remove the job protection clauses that full-time long-term workers of more than 10 years service have. That was made clear publicly.

When we tried to find out from Local 79 what the position of the executive was, we learned that they refused to exchange bargaining proposals at the beginning of December, for two reasons: one, they wanted the financial report from the city because we've been hearing different figures - how many millions the city is in the hole. Now we know we have a $154 million surplus.

The other reason is that they were in the middle of an election and didn't know who the leadership would be. Here we're getting contradictory positioning from the outgoing union leadership: on the one hand they say the City has never bargained with us till Feb. 15 - after we've exchanged proposals and gotten materials back and forth. On the other hand we constantly hear that this isn't the same City, we're not dealing with the same people or agenda like in the past. The messages from the outgoing president, Anne Dubinsky, have been contradictory.

As this bantering went back and forth, the City communicated with all the members through our internet system, they also went public saying as a result of CUPE not being willing to bargain, they would apply for a conciliator. And that's what they did.

The CUPE 79 executive called an emergency-like meeting early in December at the Sheraton Hotel. We were given a vague overview in PowerPoint talking about the language in some of the articles of the collective agreement. They did say they'd be asking for monetary increases and protection of the seniority clauses and for redeployment clauses. The leadership asked us if we could live with no cuts and a freeze on what we have now. Everyone in the hotel, over 300 people, said "of course." The exec was asking us if that was the bottom line, but there was no official vote, and they were vague on every proposal.

Right now, members of the full-time City of Toronto bargaining unit have a protection clause that means that if you have 10 years or more service at the City and your job is either deleted or altered, they have to redeploy you in a similar position. You can still be fired or let go, but this particular clause allows people with seniority to move. The employer wants to open this up, in order to bring people in on "temporary assignments" or as contract workers who can be kept at the same level of pay.

DC: This is Rob Ford trying to get what Mel Lastman tried to get in 2002 when he was mayor but failed to get?

JB: Yeah but I think they're hellbent on it, unlike Lastman. What Ford's been able to do through the cuts, before we even got to the bargaining table, is that every City division except for the police has had to make cuts of 10%. For example, the number of hours libraries are open has had to be cut. In Toronto Public Health, the 10% cut means a number of positions will never be replaced. One of the worst examples is Parks, Forestry and Recreation, where they're not only cutting hours but introducing user fees in priority centres. As a result, fewer low-income people will participate, so the City will cancel classes and rec centres will close. They'll bring in privatized programs such as Girls & Boys clubs without programming or regulations or training, so they'll no longer have to pay City staff or regulate programs.

So the employer's demands in bargaining are tied to cuts to services -- cutting 2000 subsidized daycare spaces, privatizing homes for the aged and so on. They're 1) cutting programs and services, contracting out, privatizing, and 2) ending what City responsibilities have been. It's creating a neoliberal restructuring of the city. That's very different from Lastman's agenda. The cuts are taking place before we even started bargaining, and directors and managers at City divisions are doing it for Ford.

If they can find ways to bring in more contract workers and pay them less, and not allow our workers to apply for full-time positions, they will. We have examples of part-timers in Parks & Rec working full-time hours with no access to vacation or benefits, with several thousand aggregate hours needed before they can apply for a full-time position. This is a big issue because getting jobs in Parks & Rec is a way that youth and immigrant workers of colour can get hired into City jobs. It's then possible to move from a part-time job in Parks & Rec to a full-time position elsewhere. That'll be cut completely if the City is able to win. It's about more than decent living wages and benefits for full-timers; it's also about cutting off people from marginal and racialized communities, who already have trouble accessing City jobs.

DC: Can you say something about what's at stake for the working class more broadly in this round of bargaining, beyond the people who work for the City, and beyond access to City jobs?


JB: CUPE 79 and 416 are two of the largest public sector locals in the country. If the City is able to get concessions that open the door to privatization and contracting out, and weaken wages and benefits for full-timers, it opens up an attack on the public sector like we've never seen before in this country. This will set the precedent for generations to come.

The union leadership didn't do the education necessary prior to the 2009 strike, linking our jobs with the actual programs we provide. We didn't win public support in the last strike. The media and capitalist class won that round.

Now we're in a situation where they still haven't done the education that's needed. They have a glossy campaign about "what we do for Toronto" making no link with the community and users of those services. But they don't explain the connections between decent living wages and benefits on the one hand, and actual public services and youth having a future on the other. We already need more resources and services, not less.

PL: I can't overemphasize how important this potential lockout will be for the state of Canadian labour.

DC: What's the state of Local 79 right now?

JB: Our leadership is completely top-down, not willing or able to include the membership (except a hand-picked few). They have refused to engage in a public campaign and partnership with grassroots community organizations to defend public sector services. They've played down what issues are at stake. When we went to picket captain training, we were told that if we're locked out it'll be an information picket only, we'll hand out info to the public and don't want any negative images, we just want to show we want to go back to work. But they don't have any materials for us. It's almost Christmas and bargaining starts in January. The earliest date for a lockout is Jan. 19 and we still don't have materials.

They've refused to endorse Stop the Cuts neighbourhood actions; they have no banners or placards at actions even though they're present at them. They're getting direction from CUPE National to avoid negative images.

PL: On the ground, I've seen no literature, no member education. To tie that into the last strike, I was pretty active in two other CUPE strikes previous to this, locals with much smaller memberships, but they were politically inspiring. We had some type of member education and we knew why we were on strike. The last strike by CUPE 79 was politically demobilizing for everyone on the picket lines, and coming out of that were a lot of questions. It seems as if the leadership hasn't learned any lessons from that strike. That's politically dispiriting.

JB: In terms of the membership, there's demoralization, very little faith in the current leadership to direct us, and a growing desire for more democracy.

DC: What about the state of Local 416?

JB: Local 416 President Mark Ferguson, as a leader, has been out attending different grassroots community meetings… that's him personally. On the other hand, their strategy isn't much different than 79. The strategy has been to not make too much of a ruckus. Mark is tied to Labour Council's strategy, and Labour Council has refused to work with Stop the Cuts. I think Mark was open to working with Stop the Cuts and the Workers' Assembly, but I believe Labour Council leadership reined him in.

DC: Recently there were elections in Local 79 -- do you see a change there?


JB: What's significant is that 3600 people out of 18 000 voted. That's up only slightly over the last vote. An independent ran for president, and he received around 950 votes. His candidacy was symbolic of two things: 1) most of the membership is disengaged from the union, and 2) he got 25% of the vote even though he's not widely-known. The vote for him was a rejection of the status quo and Tim McGuire, who was 1st Vice-President on the previous executive and who won the election for local president.

DC: Do you have evidence of CUPE National shaping the local's strategy?


JB: They're shaping its communication strategy, where they weren't allowed to in 2009. It's weak, it's vague and it doesn't make the necessary labour-community connections. Members were thrilled to see something coming from us, but when you ask them what it says, they say it doesn't say anything other than that we work for the City. It doesn't connect our jobs, wages, benefits, the right to a decent living wage.

PL: It makes zero connections between cuts to municipal workers and cuts to public services generally. Already the City manager is claiming there will be 2300 employees cut, or who have been cut already. What's not stated, not even CUPE makes the connection, is that if 2300 jobs are cut, there's an immediate cut to public services that residents depend on.

DC: Julia, you're part of a new caucus, Our 79, in the local. How did it come together and what is it doing?

JB: There was a group of activists, primarily stewards and flying squad members, who worked together in two strikes. After the 2009 strike so many people were demoralized; we met several times after the strike, but there was no cohesion. The people who came together aren't people who ran with the current leadership but pissed off rank and filers who were fed up with how they were treated in the strike. People in EMS, public health, social services, Parks & Rec. The caucus is going to have a website soon. This caucus is a really positive step.

DC: What should members of 79 do now?

JB: Anywhere that Local 79 members work or live, they should hook up with Stop the Cuts local committees. Show people in your local community that you're a City worker. It's very important to make links, to show people that you're a library user, your kids go to Parks & Rec too, so people see you're not just a pencil-pushing bureaucrat, that you live and work in the community and use the services too. And attending Stop the Cuts rallies is crucial for making links between public sector service jobs and services.

At the same time, put pressure on the 79 leadership to be transparent and accountable. If people feel disillusioned they need to get involved in the new caucus. It's not just about winning a slate and winning the next election and taking over the leadership, it's about holding the current leadership accountable, changing the bylaws to make them more democratic. When we speak at meetings, people come up to us to say they agree, and I sign them up for the caucus. But this is a long-haul; as more people get disillusioned and feel locked out by the local, the more possibilities we have about building a strong base.

DC: What can people who want to support City workers and who aren't in Local 79 do to ensure Ford doesn't win?

JB: Get involved with Stop the Cuts and get out to the demonstration on January 17th. Then we should have a blitz across every subway stop for two weeks' straight at rush hour with flyers connecting cuts in services with our jobs. Make the links concretely to people, through different job actions that make positive links to the community.

PL: Keep informed. Check out the website Ford For for Toronto, which keeps a council scorecard about city councilors and also goes through the budget and proves that the "crisis" is a complete scam. I agree with Julia that it's important to get out to the community, get out to your neighbours, and so on.

Julia Barnett is a steward in CUPE Local 79 and a member of Stop the Cuts. Peter Lynch is a member of CUPE Local 79.

Thanks to Greg Sharzer for transcription.

 

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