Toronto’s bargaining proposal questioned

Settlement won’t serve city’s goal in overhauling current contract: Experts
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/05/2011

Back in 2009, before Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto, he was one of several city councillors demanding the provincial government order striking city employees back to work.

But that’s unlikely to be the mayor’s wish this time around if the city and its outside workers can’t reach a new collective agreement, according to David Doorey, a law professor at York University in Toronto.

The deal — signed after a 36-day strike two years ago — expires at the end of 2011.

Recently, the city introduced a bargaining proposal that reportedly targets almost all of the 48 articles in the collective agreement.

“Since the city is trying to squeeze out substantial concessions from the unionized workers, the last thing (Ford) wants is an arbitrated settlement,” said Doorey.

“Arbitrators don’t tend to award employers breakthrough clawback of workers’ rights. Employers usually need to ‘win’ those concessions through industrial warfare — a failed strike or a successful lockout that pressures employees to concede.”

It may be the other way around this time, with the unions pressing for back-to-work legislation in the event of a lockout, noting the city would want it to run its course, hoping workers cave and agree to the concessions, said Doorey.

“The city may consider using replacement workers to continue to run some city services,” he said.

“That will no doubt raise tensions on the picket lines and make work for lawyers running back and forth to court seeking injunctions.”

The situation unfolding in Toronto is “unusual” because public sector employers rarely demand radical changes to a collective agreement, said Kevin Banks, an employment law expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“Normally, when an employer does that it’s because it has an ulterior motive of breaking a union — and typically it’s in the private sector where it’s about saving money,” he said. “Here you have a monopoly sector and a union that has a long-standing relationship. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a municipality could rationally break a union.”

There is a fine line between “bargaining hard” and bargaining in bad faith, said Banks. There will be pressure on the City of Toronto to prove the demands are only related to cost savings and not to undermining the union or the collective bargaining process, he said. That may be difficult to prove, given some of the articles being targeted by the city.

Among the reported demands is an article dealing with redeployment of permanent employees who lose their job due to contracting out, technological change or the deletion of a position.

“It’s an extremely tough issue to lay off people without redeployment,” said Banks. “That’s the kind of sticking point that could provoke a work stoppage.”

The union has vowed to work with hockey leagues and neighbourhood groups to avoid service disruptions at arenas and community centres in the event of a lockout or strike.

That could be a challenge if Toronto locks out its employees, said Banks. While the city can be selective about which groups it locks out, it’s often not advantageous to do so.

Aside from the legal issues, there are other risks attached to demanding a substantive overhaul to a collective agreement, he said.

“There are tremendous labour relations risks and it can take years to recover.”

The city’s approach to this round of collective bargaining is “unprecedented,” said Laurel MacDowell, a labour historian at the University of Toronto.

The mayor has said he has no intention of locking out the union and hopes to sign a deal quickly.

Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer. This article was originally published in Canadian Labour Reporter. For more information, visit www.labour-reporter.com

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