Mayor Rob Ford has fired the first shot in Toronto's next trash battle - and it doubles as a warning of a wider privatization war to come.
The city has officially notified the garbage workers union of its desire to contract out three services: Curbside collection for 165,000 homes between Etobicoke and Yonge Street; litter and recycling pickup in parks; and vacuum street cleaning, a quarter of which is already performed by outside companies.
That's less garbage privatization than Mr. Ford promised during the election campaign, and much less privatization than he envisions in Toronto's future.
"If the administration had its druthers and the mayor had his druthers, we'd contract out [garbage]in the entire city," said public works chairman Denzil Minnan-Wong, who called Monday's developments a "first base" for more privatization.
Still, even a gradual approach to privatizing more garbage service sets up a showdown at city council - which gets the final say in May - and possibly on the picket line next year.
"I don't expect that we're going to be taking a strike in January. I think that there's a very real possibility that this administration will lock out its own employees," said CUPE Local 416 president Mark Ferguson, who represents more than 8,000 outside workers.
"I think that this will poison the labour-relations environment in the city for a long time to come," added John Cartwright, president of the powerful Toronto and York Regional Labour Council.
The Ford administration is trying to eliminate about 300 city jobs without violating CUPE's collective agreement, which guarantees all permanent, full-time employees displaced by privatization another job elsewhere in the municipal work force.
The contract runs out Dec. 31, 2011.
Mr. Minnan-Wong said the city hopes to sidestep the "jobs-for-life" provision by eliminating only temporary employees.
Local 416 represents 1,340 solid-waste workers city-wide, including 400 temporary employees, according to a CUPE source.
West of Yonge Street, there are 600 employees, half of whom are temporary.
About 100 to 120 permanent employees would have to be redeployed, and CUPE sources say the redeployment process is complex and subject to negotiations with city labour-relations staff.
There is another way the city could speed up attrition: It could ask private bidders to hire city garbage workers, a city staff source said. Mr. Minnan-Wong declined to comment on possible language in the tender.
Piecemeal privatization could save an estimated $8-million a year, about $6-million from curbside pickup west of Yonge Street and $2-million from parks collection and "other associated savings," according to Geoff Rathbone, the general manager of solid waste.
That's less than the $20-million Mr. Ford predicted during the campaign, when he promised to contract out trash city-wide in one fell swoop.
A C.D. Howe study released last September found city-wide trash privatization could save $49-million per year.
The union disputes its conclusions and points to an annual Ontario-wide "benchmarking report" that notes Toronto's cost per tonne of waste picked up is well below the provincial average - about 30 per cent below the median of 14 municipalities studied.
"We're going to save millions of dollars, and we're going to reduce the size of government. That's what people elected us to do," Mr. Ford told reporters on Monday before leaving to meet a group of schoolchildren. He did not take questions.
Don't expect any of those millions to be passed on to taxpayers as reduced garbage-bin fees, Mr. Minnan-Wong said.
"That would be nice, but I think when we find out how large [the 2012 budget] shortfall will be, it will become quite apparent that that money's very much needed to cover off our operating shortfall."
Along with the 90-day notice issued on Monday, the city has officially warned the union that it would issue a "request for quotations for contingency collection services anywhere across the city, as required."
Mr. Minnan-Wong said that would allow the city to hire private haulers if the union decided to strike illegally before the end of this year.
"That's giving them notice that if they participate in illegal work stoppages ... that the city will take measures to make sure there's uninterrupted service," he said.
If council endorses the plan, city staff will likely recommend a "fairness consultant" oversee the tendering process with a goal of private delivery beginning in mid-2012, Mr. Rathbone said in an e-mail.
Now the Ford administration will spend the next few months trying to line up council support.
Left-leaning Councillor Gordon Perks of Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park, said that contracting out garbage collection would bring "an inevitable decline in the service Torontonians have come to expect."
But deputy mayor Doug Holyday called the move long overdue.
"What's happening today should have happened, in my opinion, in 1998," he said.
With reports from John Lorinc and Marcus Gee