The Globe and Mail ran a piece this week deconstructing the last round of collective bargaining between the City of Toronto and CUPE 416, the outside workers. The angle of the story is that the City negotiating team deployed clever strategies throughout that worked like a charm in backing the union and the workers into a corner. I followed the bargaining as it happened in my on-line Anatomy of Work Stoppage? Series.
In the end, the bargaining was influenced mostly by the unwillingness of the workers to strike or to force a lockout. We know from history that unless workers are prepared to withstand a work stoppage, they will be hard-pressed to resist an aggressive employer’s demands for concessions.
One strategy the article notes was the employer’s effort to create separate timelines for bargaining between the outside workers (CUPE 416) and the inside workers (CUPE79). This was accomplished by starting the bargaining process earlier with 416. However, that strategy only worked because CUPE 79 was leaderless. Had CUPE 79 served notice to bargain at the same time the employer was serving notice on CUPE 416, and been ready to bargain and get to a strike/lockout date at the same time as CUPE 416, the bargaining would have been coordinated as it was in 2009, giving the workers more power. That was a strategic mistake by CUPE to let the employer divide the two units along different bargaining timelines.
The Globe article notes also the CIty’s strategy of threatening to unilaterally change the employees’ terms of employment rather than lockout the workers. Here’s what the article says:
..the city had another option to force the union’s hand.
Last summer, Mr. Remtulla (Mayor Ford’s Chief of Staff) presented the working group with research he’d done on a novel tactic that Ontario’s community colleges had deployed against unionized instructors in 2009.
If the union refused to settle, the city could simply implement its final offer. The union could either work under new terms and conditions imposed by the city, strike or buckle down and make a deal.
“It hasn’t been done [in the public sector],” Mr. Minnan-Wong said. “No one else had the balls.”
Much was made of this strategy at the time. However, it is a really a red herring. It is true that employers rarely deploy this strategy, and that public sector employers virtually never do. There are good reasons for that. It rarely works as a bargaining strategy.
All the CUPE members had to do if the employer unilaterally changed their terms of employment was show up for work, then sit on their hands and do nothing, or work to rule (slow down) and collect their pay. What would the City do then? Presumably, lock them out. It couldn’t fire them or even discipline them for doing this, because you can’t fire an employee for engaging in a legal strike, and the workers would have been in a legal strike position. A strike includes more than just walking off the job; it includes any concerted effort to slow down or refuse to work.
The point is that the threat of the employer to change conditions of work rather than lockout the workers was a public relations strategy designed to make any work stoppage look like it was the union’s fault. CUPE workers could have provoked a lockout by showing up and doing nothing, or they could have just struck. Thus, the real issue was CUPE’s unwillingness to get involved in another work stoppage, regardless of whether it was a strike, lockout, or combination of both.
There may have been good reasons for this unwillingness, given the unpopularity of the last work stoppage in 2009. No doubt the City administration’s threat to win concessions even if this required a long work stoppage caused the workers and CUPE leadership to doubt whether a work stoppage would ultimately prove beneficial to the workers. In this way, Ford and his allies certainly did influence the course of negotiations.
The extent to which the new deal will save the City money remains a big question. The City is throwing around the number $141 over 4 years, but never trust a politician on these matters. That number will depend on whether the City is able to downsize or contract out work, how much the contracting out costs, how many workers would have retired or quit regardless of the deal, and then you have to include too the money that would have been saved had the City accepted the union’s proposed zero % wage increase, rather than the employers’ 6% wage increase that ended up in the agreement. It will take years to determine the financial impact of the latest settlement.
One lesson here is that having a right to strike means little if the workers are unprepared to exercise it. Do you think that CUPE should have reacted any differently in this bargaining round?