Building a new model for labour relations in T.O.

Heading back to the bargaining table, City of Toronto tries out an interest-based approach
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/13/2004

The stench of garbage steaming in the sun may have long faded from the streets of Toronto, but not so the memory of the rancid labour relations that brought city services to a halt two years ago.

This fall, as the City of Toronto heads into collective bargaining with two CUPE locals, it’s hoping to replace that taint with a new reputation. It’s a reputation for collaboration and trust that the city has tried to establish through interest-based bargaining with the city’s 3,000 firefighters.

“The record was clear. Labour relations weren’t working in the City of Toronto,” said Bill Adams. Brought in as the city’s director of employee and labour relations in 2002, Adams had a mandate to clean up the mess that labour relations had become.

When he arrived, both CUPE locals representing the city’s workers had walked off the job in quick succession in 1999 and 2002. Workers in the second, two-week strike were ordered back to work and to resume collective bargaining with arbitrator Tim Armstrong. Outside that process, the two CUPE locals had another 3,300 grievances before arbitration.

At $10,000 a day in lawyers’ fees, arbitrator fees and staff salaries — and that’s just the city’s portion of the bill — this broken approach was costing taxpayers dearly.

Much of this rancour could be traced back to the ill-advised way the province forced amalgamation upon the seven Toronto-area governments in 1998.

“There was no planning to it,” said Adams. “It was ordered by fief. People had to do it, and they went into it kicking and screaming. The citizens didn’t want the cities merged. The unions didn’t want to lose the local unions. Everybody was against it except for the provincial government.”

The province didn’t help matters by leaving it to the parties to sort out the details. Seven employers, more than 55 CUPE locals and six firefighters’ associations found themselves involved in a tussle for power, responsibilities and money. At the beginning of this year, six years after amalgamation, workers doing the same work in certain job categories were still earning different wages, and the discrepancy could be as high as $10,000 a year at the high end. Similar harmonization questions still remain as the two CUPE locals head into negotiation at the end of this year.

After 35 years in labour relations , first as a union representative and then in public-sector management, Adams has long been disenchanted with much of traditional, adversarial labour relations.

“In traditional collective bargaining, the side with the most power rules. The adversarial approach doesn’t take into consideration the other party’s needs,” said Adams. Each side looks after its needs, “and what we wind up with is a third-party solution to everything.”

To start cleaning up the labour relations mess in Toronto, Adams first had to look for “a pilot” opportunity to try out the new interest-based approach.

He found it with the firefighters. The city’s 3,000 firefighters, prevented by law from striking, were chalking up 125 days in arbitration just to work out the collective agreement for 1999 to 2001.

The opportunity for change came when a new fire chief was appointed, just around the time the firefighters’ association elected Scott Marks as its new president. Together with Adams’ arrival, the change in leadership marked an opportunity to turn the page.

The city applied for a $100,000 grant from the Labour-Management Partnership Program, a federal program mandated to help both sides of the labour divide work out innovative approaches. Adams called in Mac Roberts, an Uxbridge, Ont.-based change management consultant with a quiet, disarming style.

“The whole idea for me is not to go in and say, ‘This is the way you do it,’” said Roberts. “Instead, we say, ‘We think if you work together in this way, you’ll discover a better place to be and we’ll help you get there, in whatever way we can.’”

In his first get-together with the firefighters association’s executive, Roberts said he found them open to trying something new. Scott Marks, however, said he still had his doubts. In the early days after amalgamation, it had taken two weeks for the sides to agree on a clause recognizing the local as a bargaining unit.

“The message that came back to the executive board at the time was, ‘This is going to be hell.’ If it takes two weeks to resolve something that was almost a non-issue,” said Marks, the firefighters had to assume that the city’s tactic was “just to refuse to accept anything and to force us to fight.”

But negotiating a contract in arbitration was just too time-consuming. By summer 2003, the firefighters had only finalized a collective agreement that had already expired in 2001. On Adams’ and Roberts’ invitations, they agreed to try out the new process. Besides, as Adams took to saying, they could always go back to arbitration if this proved unfruitful.

There were a few times last fall when all that Mac Roberts could do was just sit back and let the parties wrestle with their misconceptions. He would wait until the next morning to ask, in his low-key way, what the parties heard each other saying. When trust isn’t in place, said Roberts, people read ulterior motives into each other’s positions.

In hindsight, said Roberts, much of the credit for getting past the acrimony goes to the leadership on both sides. “There was some talk about ‘had beens,’ and in any union there will always be some who are still back there. But I think the leaders did a good job in saying, ‘It doesn’t matter where we were. Here’s where we are now and here’s where we’re going.’”

But even before negotiations formally began, Marks needed a sign of goodwill. The police association had recently obtained a 3.5 per-cent wage increase, and in a tradition dating back decades, firefighters in Toronto always had wage parity with the police.

“We told (Adams) that if he wanted to put his money where his mouth was,” said Marks, “(he) shouldn’t make us fight for what (he) knew we were going to get.” The firefighters’ association asked for an interim wage settlement for 2002 and 2003 to be implemented as soon as possible and retroactively to the beginning of 2002.

“And in fairness to them, there was nothing in it for them. I don’t think that they disagreed that this is what we were going to get, but certainly whenever you’re bargaining, you expect some give and take before you get there.”

But Adams understood the importance of the gesture, and the city granted the request.

The change was palpable, said Marks. “There was almost disbelief in our membership, who were saying, ‘Why would they give us this at the very outset?’ It bought Bill Adams a huge amount of credibility.” From that point on, the association’s executive began taking very seriously a Dec. 4 deadline that Roberts had asked for.

At the beginning, said Marks, “I thought (setting the deadline) was a pretty pointless exercise, because when we’re dealing with arbitrations, deadlines are almost a joke. As we got into it, in November, strangely enough, the deadline started to matter.” And on Dec. 4th, Marks released a notice saying both sides had worked through all the issues in principle.

Looking back, Marks acknowledged that he took some risks with his credibility by going through the process. Marks remembered facing an agitated crowd in the first weeks of September, when the process had just begun and he couldn’t yet disclose the progress on the interim payment.

“The union meeting was still pretty angry. People were saying, ‘What are you doing? Let’s do a work action so they know we’re unhappy.’” Marks had to talk fast to win some time. After the interim payment was signed in October that anger dissipated. “People began to understand that there was a different labour relations environment.”

For the city, peace with the firefighters is just one milestone; the tougher goal is still ahead. Brian Cochrane, president of the CUPE local representing outside workers, told Canadian HR Reporter that interest-based bargaining is not an option at this point, given the lack of trust between the union and the administration.

Still, in the first half of this year, with Tim Armstrong brought in as facilitator this time, the CUPE locals and the city managed to make significant progress in “clearing the path” on outstanding collective agreement and amalgamation issues. The grievance backlog was brought down from 3,300 to 1,850 by late May.

In July, top city officials, union leaders and politicians on the employee labour relations committee gathered at a week-long high-level retreat on the Toronto Islands to talk about the way forward.

And behind the scenes, Adams has set up training for managers and union officials, to help them learn tools for resolving conflicts as and when they arise.

Adams still regularly hears people expressing reservation about this new approach. Union reps have occasionally asked the firefighters, “So, what did you have to give up to get that?” And among managers, “a lot of them think we’re in bed with the unions,” said Adams.

From Marks’ point of view, the collaboration that took place as both sides worked out the operational improvements was so successful, he now has to turn down opportunities to give association input into policy changes.

“What we’re finding is more and more, when they have policy changes, they want us to be onside. They want to engage us. And quite frankly, on a couple of things, I’ve had to say, ‘I understand what you’re doing, but it’s a no-winner for me.’”

He willingly admits, though, that the collaborative approach takes hard work.

“To enter into a relationship like this requires you to take a stand, and not hide behind the traditional (position) of, ‘I’m labour and I’m not going to decide anything and I’ll just complain about everything.’ It’s a really easy way to deal with things,” said Marks. “As this proceeds and becomes more successful, there will be more things we’re involved in.”

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