Four big issues stand between more than 5,000 City of Toronto outside workers and a possible work stoppage in less than two weeks if their union and the city can’t agree on a new contract.
The Star sat down separately with city spokesperson Brad Ross and Eddie Mariconda, president of CUPE Local 416, to talk sticking points and a possible work stoppage that could, as early as Feb. 27, halt garbage collection east of Yonge Street, close city buildings and rinks, and more.
They agree that job security, parental leave, concessions on other benefits and wages are the main unresolved issues. With talks set to resume Tuesday, there seems little other common ground except both sides saying they want to avoid a city-triggered lockout or a union-triggered strike.
“We want our workforce, whom we value, to be well-compensated with good benefits,” and pay, Ross said at city hall. “We want to maintain a professional workforce by compensating them fairly — but it also needs to be affordable,” for taxpayers.
Mariconda, in a hotel near city hall where bargaining will take place, notes the city filed for conciliation on Dec. 19 and this month for the “no board” report that signals a logjam and started a 17-day countdown toward a possible legal work stoppage.
“My bargaining committee is sitting here twiddling their thumbs, we’ve been available 24-7, I can’t bargain with myself,” Mariconda says. “The city are the ones driving this toward a work stoppage.”
Here is what they say about the sticking points:
- Job security: The last contract said any Local 416 members, who include garbage collectors, parks maintenance workers, animal services technicians and Toronto Water staff, with 15 years’ service as of Dec. 31, 2019 could not lose their jobs due to contracting out.
The union wants to move that date to the end of the new contract, so workers who hit the 15-year mark during the new term become protected. The city wants to keep the date Dec. 31, 2019, so the protection will be phased out as those with job security — currently about half — leave the city.
“The city calls it job security, jobs for life — how about a commitment to your front line workers?” Mariconda says. “Anybody with 14 years or less, they’re saying ‘Have a nice day, thanks for your years of service but we don’t want you anymore.”
Ross noted no Local 416 members have lost their jobs to privatization and says there are no plans for a push to outsource city work, but Toronto needs to be flexible to adapt city services as required.
“The union wants to move [the protection start date] to the next contract, so it would forever be, and we’re saying ‘No, we want to keep it there [on Dec. 31] to ensure the city can enjoy the flexibility it needs to be efficient.”
- Benefits: The city wants a third straight contract with a reduction of benefits won in past bargaining. Ross says the city wants limits on the numbers of orthotics and orthopedics that can be claimed per year for workers’ dependants under 18, and on erectile dysfunction drugs.
City expenses for both, and the risk of fraud, have been flagged by the city’s auditor general and triggered a city switch to a new benefits provider. The city’s costs for Viagra and similar drugs jumped from almost $412,000 for outside workers in 2017 to more than $420,000 last year.
“All we’re asking is for reasonableness, this is about cost containment,” Ross says. The city also wants half-days taken off for illness counted toward workers’ allotted sick days, saying such occurrences jumped 39 per cent between 2016 and 2019.
Maricondo won’t discuss those demands, saying that should happen at the bargaining table.
“They have over 25 concessions on the table and here we are in a countdown,” to a possible work stoppage, he said. “The last two rounds of bargaining we have given and given on benefits. If we let this continue it will be our members paying the city for the benefits instead of the other way.”
- Parental leave: The last contract topped up workers’ salary during pregnancy and parental leave, up to 75 per cent of their salary, for 52 weeks. But in 2017 the federal government changed Employment Insurance rules so workers can extend the leave up to 18 months.
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Local 416 wants the previous EI benefits top-up extended to 18 months. The city wants workers who opt to be home for 18 months to spread the value of a 12-month top-up over 18 months.
Ross says that extending the top-up to 18 months could add $1.9 million in city costs — something the city can’t afford. Mariconda says he’s willing to talk but “you’re not going to create a collective agreement by putting out press releases. Get back to the table and find solutions.”
- Wages. Neither side have discussed pay, traditionally left in bargaining until other main issues are settled. The past two contracts have seen nonpolice city workers get raises less than inflation, which is effectively a pay cut.
Bargaining starts Tuesday without the provincially appointed conciliator to focus on what Ross calls “the big ones” — job security and benefits. Another meeting with the conciliator is slated for Feb. 22.
If a work stoppage happens, Ross said, the city will fully inform Torontonians on affected services. Many city buildings would close with no janitors working. Outdoor rinks and potentially arenas would close. Garbage transfer stations would remain open but likely with picket lines.
Mariconda was a parks worker during the 2009 work stoppage that saw garbage piles grow in parks along with public anger at both the union and city leaders. “It was brutal, nobody wants that again,” the Local 416 president says. “But we need the city to come to the table and be reasonable.”
The four big issues in Local 416 bargaining are the same ones on the table in ongoing city negotiations with more than 20,000 inside workers, said Dave Mitchell, president of CUPE Local 79.
Differing member demographics influence their priorities, he said, noting the majority of Local 416 are male while the majority of Local 79 members — whose four-year contract also expired Dec. 31 — are female.
“We figure the parental leave language the city wants could mean a $24,000 hit to each of our members,” who go on extended parental leave, Mitchell said. Contracting out is also a big issue for Local 79, he said, arguing the city is in danger of having a precarious part-time workforce.
A Local 79-requested conciliator has been appointed by the province and is expected to meet with the two sides next week. If the obstacles aren’t overcome and either side requests a no-board report, Torontonians will face the spectre of both unions off the job at the same time.
One other union, the library workers’ CUPE Local 4948, also has an expired contract and recently started bargaining with library board representatives.