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Why Toronto may not get privatized garbage pickup any time soon

Local 416 CUPE worker Chris Brearey (left) watches as management workers at Bouchette Street in Toronto load garbage into waiting trucks.

Anne-Marie Jackson for The Globe and Mail/anne-marie jackson The Globe and Mail

When Rob Ford campaigned, he made contracting out garbage sound easy.



But imagine this: It's one year from today, and Mayor Ford is waging an impressive war on Toronto's public-sector unions over who takes out the trash.



He's already won a key council vote in favour of contracting out garbage pickup. He's served CUPE Local 416 with the requisite three-months notice that privatization is imminent.

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Now garbage haulers and thousands of other city workers have been shivering on the picket line for three weeks – not because they decided to strike, but because Mayor Ford locked them out the minute their contracts expired at 12:01 a.m., Jan. 1.



He's hired scabs to empty the temporary dumps and security guards to keep the picketers in line.



All Mayor Ford needs now is to summon the guts his predecessor lacked while he waits for big labour to cave on the job-security guarantees that make it nearly impossible for Toronto to save cash through privatization.



Reverie aside, easy is the last thing that this process is going to be.



Even if the mayor takes the hardest line imaginable – the storyline above – the ironclad job-security language in the unions' contracts could stymie his efforts to save anything near the $49-million the C.D. Howe Institute predicted garbage privatization could trim from Toronto's annual budget.



That's a big problem for Mr. Ford, who badly needs new sources of savings and revenue to kill a land-transfer tax that is expected to rake in $220-million this year – more than the net budgets of the transportation and municipal licensing departments combined. If Mr. Ford intends to keep his word on the real-estate tax and balance a 2012 budget that won't be engorged with David Miller's leftover surpluses, he'll have to radically remake Toronto's business model in the span of a single budget.



He's already ordered a third-party management review of all city departments, starting with the biggest fish; he has asked for a list of city assets to sell; and he plans to launch a comprehensive review of the fees Toronto charges for everything from recreation programs to building permits.

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Contracting out garbage is part of the plan too. But what if, as the mayor's own deputy concedes, it takes years and a piecemeal approach to privatize garbage collection in Toronto, if it can happen at all?



In the meantime, Mr. Ford would most likely find himself ensnared in a war whose outcome is a Pyrrhic victory at best.



"I think it'd be a huge issue," John Cartwright, president of the powerful Toronto and York Region Labour Council, said of contracting out. "I think it's a recipe for tremendous labour unrest."



THE UNION ISSUE: JOB SECURITY



The challenge facing the Ford administration is the sheer size of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 416's solid-waste work force and the job-security provisions in their existing deal, which expires Dec. 31, 2011.



In Toronto, there are the equivalent of 920 permanent, front-line staff collecting garbage, recyclables, composting and hazardous waste from curbs, high-rise buildings, businesses, public litter bins and elsewhere. Another 335 work in transfer and disposal, according to city spokeswoman Juanita Christmas.

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CUPE Local 416's current contract compels the municipal government to find another job for every permanent worker displaced by privatization – meaning a mayor who has vowed to reduce staff through attrition would have to break his word and absorb as many as 1,255 positions into the existing municipal work force if he tried to contract out the whole service in one fell swoop.



How large an impediment is that?



"Big. Big," Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday concedes. "In Etobicoke, we did not have our hands tied behind our backs like that."



Mr. Holyday, who was mayor of the old municipality when it privatized curbside pickup in 1995, is now chair of council's employee and labour relations committee and one of Mr. Ford's point men on privatization.



It's too early to predict whether Mr. Ford would try to snatch the union's job-security blanket when the next round of bargaining heats up in early 2012, Mr. Holyday said.



"But I imagine they'd fight tooth and nail over that. Why wouldn't they? They should never have had it in the first place."



It was Mel Lastman who, in 1999, first agreed to guarantee jobs for all municipal workers with 10 years of service or more.



If privatization displaced an employee, he or she could slide into a post of equal pay; if forced into a job that paid less, the worker would be entitled to the old, higher wage for 30 months, or 60 months if within five years of retirement.



In 2002, Mr. Lastman tried to water down the provision, prompting a 16-day strike over what he derided as "jobs for life."



Thanks to a little divine intervention in the form of a looming Papal visit, Queen's Park legislated workers back and punted the contract to an arbitrator who strengthened the job-security language.



If "jobs for life" still applied solely to those with a decade or more of service, then only 534 of the 920 bodies in front-line solid waste, for example, would be shielded from privatization.



But in 2005, David Miller extended the guarantee to all permanent employees regardless of seniority, a concession that attracted scant public attention at the time.



Mark Ferguson, the president of Local 416, said maintaining the existing job-security language is a top priority for his members and the members of Local 79, which represents inside workers and usually strikes in concert with Local 416. In 2009, they spent 39 days on the picket line in part to guard a sick-bank benefit eliminated long ago in most of the private sector. The perk is a frill compared to the job guarantee.



No amount of time on the picket line would convince the union to give it up.



"And an arbitrator would never take it away," Mr. Ferguson correctly points out.



During the election campaign, Mr. Ford repeatedly invited Local 416 to bid if Toronto puts some or all of its solid-waste services out to tender.



But Local 416, which represents more than 8,000 staff, won't bid. "We're not an employer," Mr. Ferguson said. "It's an impossible situation for him to ask."



None of this has dissuaded Mayor Ford from his election pledge. His brother and consigliere, Councillor Doug Ford, says the administration remains "100 per cent" committed to contracting out garbage.



"They'll have better service for better cost," he said. "I hope people don't have short memories and forget about the [39]days they held us hostage."



If the Ford brothers really are determined to take on the unions, they could do worse than looking to Windsor, where private haulers began taking out the trash last month.



THE WINDSOR MODEL



As the mayor of a union town, Windsor's Eddie Francis knew he was in for a fierce fight when a municipal workers' strike began in the spring of 2009.



So he crafted a fight plan: He invited private companies to haul away the garbage, largely sparing Windsorites the smelly mountains of trash that filled Toronto's parks the same summer.



The tactic enraged labour leaders, but helped keep the public in management's corner as the strike dragged on for 101 days.



In the end, Mr. Francis eliminated post-retirement benefits for new hires and paved the way for contracting out daycare, parking enforcement and garbage, which a private company began collecting on Dec. 13. Contracting out garbage is expected to save $8.9-million over seven years.



His steeliness also paved the way for a triumph at the polls.



Last October, voters in Windsor – a city of 216,000, where one-third of workers carry a union card – re-elected Mr. Francis with 56 per cent of the vote. While they were at it, they booted Ken Lewenza Jr., son of the national president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, from council.



"Without a doubt," Mr. Francis said, "the strike was a turning point for the city."



Windsor, however, had a huge advantage over Toronto.



In the border city's case, contracting out residential trash and recycling collection to Turtle Island Recycling Corp. – the same company that picks up trash in Etobicoke – displaced just 49 city employees, according to Anne-Marie Albidone, Windsor's manager of environmental services.



Windsor absorbed them all into its parks and recreation department.



Given all the obstacles to privatization in Toronto, even Mr. Holyday concedes that a go-slow approach might be the city's only option.



"It can be done, it just would be done at a slower rate," he said. "You could just keep increasing the size of the contractor's area and shrinking ours, till you got to the balance that you wanted."



There is another way out – and it's a solution Mr. Ferguson said the union would embrace.



"We could increase the productivity of our own people and the efficiency of our own collection," Mr. Holyday said. "I would be happy with either. I'm not so hard and fast on saying contracting out is the only answer."

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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