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Guest Blog (Brenda Glover): Former Etobicoke Treasurer Explains Why Contracting Out Garbage in Toronto Won’t Be Easy

I’ve noted several times before how the Mayoral candidates (now just Ford and Smitherman) have said they will contract out garbage collection if elected.  Easy, peasy, right?  I have suggested that any to garbadeattempt by Ford or  Smitherman to eliminate the jobs of the unionized workers in pursuit of some savings will provoke a nasty labour dispute the outcome of which is far from clear.  The politicians like to point to Etobicoke as the model they will follow.  Here’s what Ford says:

Etobicoke, for example, uses contracted providers and saves the city $2 million each year. By adopting the same approach for the whole city, taxpayers will save about $20 million each year and can have the confidence their garbage collectors won’t go on unnecessary strikes.

I’ve been listening to that line for close to a year, wondering what the hell happened in Etobicoke.  Now, thanks to Brenda Glover, ex-Treasurer of Etobicoke, I can pass along one participant’s recollection of what happened to permit the City of Etobicoke to contract out unionized jobs to the private sector without a huge labour dispute.  There is some great background in Brenda’s guest blog about the differences between the situation in Etobicoke and that in Toronto in terms of both the collective agreement language and the labour relations culture.   Do you agree with her assessment that contracting out garbage collection will prove way more difficult than Ford and Smitherman would like the public to believe?

Brenda Glover’s Guest Blog:

Privatizing garbage collection in the City of Toronto has become a hot election issue, with three of the four current candidates saying they will pursue contracting out of garbage collection to the private sector.  Memories of the six-week garbage strike in 2009 serve as the rally cry to the public that the City will never have to experience a strike again were the service contracted out.  That may or may not be true but — as David Doorey quite correctly points out – there is no restriction that would prevent workers from striking against a private company.  There are no guarantees since, absent Provincial legislation or the applicable union’s agreement (the latter being a pipe dream), the City cannot include a provision in its contract with a private sector operator to interfere with a worker’s legislated right to strike.

The former City of Etobicoke contracted out its garbage collection prior to its amalgamation into the larger City of Toronto.  And Etobicoke’s history of privatization is usually held up as the gold standard against which Toronto should be measured.  However, life was much different on the labour relations front in Etobicoke back in the day.

First of all, and most importantly, Etobicoke did not have any language in its collective agreement that prohibited the then City from contracting out any of its services.  The City of Toronto has language, again as David has pointed out, that prohibits any contracting out until 2012.  And, those of us who are seasoned in the field of labour relations know that once a provision is in a collective agreement, whether it is time-limited or not, it becomes almost impossible to negotiate out of it.  Although, in principle, the prohibition against contracting out is supposed to “sunset” in 2012, a refusal by the City to extend the prohibition into the future will be a strike issue.  In many cases, particularly in the public sector, a “sunset” to a clause in a collective agreement is an illusory concept.

Secondly, Etobicoke did not have job security language in its collective agreement.  In a contracting out situation, such as the contracting out of garbage services, all employees were subject to layoff or, if applicable, bumping rights (bumping rights give an employee an opportunity to “bump” out another employee in a different position who has less seniority, if the employee who is doing the “bumping” has the necessary skills and qualification).  Given that garbage collectors have relatively low skills, there were very few opportunities available for bumping, and few employees were able to engage that right.  Unless another position could be found that simply involved driving a truck, the worker was subject to (permanent) layoff.  To soften that blow, Etobicoke Council asked private sectors bidders to take on as many Etobicoke employees as was possible, albeit those employees would be paid the contractor’s rates not the public sector rates.  As I recall, not many employees took the opportunity to work at private sector rates.

In contrast, the City of Toronto has job security language.  No employee with less than ten years of service would be subject to job loss as a resulting of contracting out.  Instead, the employee would be redeployed (put into another position) or subject to layoff and recall.  This is a significant – and costly – barrier to contracting out of garbage services.    And, it will be an administrative nightmare to implement.  Although I do not have the specific demographics for waste management employees, the average years of service for a City of Toronto employee is fourteen years (2006 data).  Hence, one could extrapolate and say the average garbage worker has more than ten years of service.  Under the job security language, those employees are not subject to job loss.  If the City is paying for private garbage pickup – and is finding jobs for all of these workers – how long will it be before we see savings?  In Etobicoke, savings were generated almost immediately, and that difference can be directly traced back to the lack of job security for its then employees.

Some of the least candidates have said they will attempt  to soften the blow by allowing the union to “bid” on its own jobs.  Perhaps this is harkening back to the Etobicoke days when the then City Council allowed CUPE to “bid” on the contract.  As Treasurer of the City in those days, I was tasked by Council with helping CUPE to work with our own management staff to craft a bid.  We spent months putting together proposals and working out schedules.  The biggest difference, however, was that labour relations was generally “peaceful” in Etobicoke AND the then president of the CUPE local was not loath to give up on longstanding labour principles in an attempt to save CUPE jobs.  As an example, the management staff told CUPE that, if they were to endorse the union bid as required by Council, they had to have the go-ahead to pick the best and the brightest of the staff (i.e. the highest performers) without regard to seniority.  To have a union given up its hard-earned seniority rights is generally unheard of in the industrial relations world!  But, give it up they did.  Without regard to seniority, the union and management worked together on a bid that lowered the number and cost of staff, with the remaining jobs going to the highest performers regardless of years of service.  Although the union was not ultimately successful in putting forward the lowest bid, they did show the extent to which they were prepared to work with management to save public sectors jobs.

Having watched the abysmal and acrimonious state of labour relations in the City of Toronto over the past ten years (and the three years before as its chief human resources officer), I can say that there is no way in a month of Sundays that the Toronto CUPE leadership would give up seniority rights in order to save jobs.  To go even further out on a limb, they may refuse to even consider bidding – seeing it as the “thin edge of the wedge” on contracting out of other City jobs.

It’s not impossible to contract out garbage services in Toronto.  However, the politicians who are making it sound like an easy thing to do are misleading the public.  To hold Etobicoke up as the standard is also disingenuous since Etobicoke was not constrained by the language that is in Toronto’s collective agreements and since Etobicoke’s state of labour relations was remarkably different than Toronto’s.

I am an advocate of efficiencies and effectiveness in government.  I was proud to serve as the Treasurer in a fiscally conservative municipality such as Etobicoke and to be in the forefront of public-private partnerships.  Given my experience, however, I strongly believe that garbage cannot be contracted out in Toronto with the same ease.  There will be a long, protracted, and rancorous strike over the issue.  The politicians – even the ones who are currently eying the Mayor’s throne – will fold their tents at the first convoy of rats mounting the hills of garbage.  Even if they stay in the tent long enough to see the “battle” won, they will face years of no cost savings and administrative headaches as they realize the implications of the job security provisions in the collective agreement.

Every time I hear one of these politicians talk about contracting out as if it could be done by the Monday after their election as Mayor – or indeed by the end of their first term — I smile sardonically and say “I want whatever you’re smoking!”

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