I’ve done loads of media interviews about the Toronto strike now. Since not much is happening on the legal front, there isn’t really all that much to say, to be honest. I’ve been asked about how this dispute might end up in interest arbitration, whether it was unlawful for Mayor Miller to take the City’s offer public last week, and whether the City could (or should) put its last offer directly to the striking workers.
Yesterday I was on a talk-radio show on AM640 hosted by Arlene Bynon. Arlene’s apparent take on the strike was that this was some sort of a water-shed moment in the history of Canadian public sector labour relations and that the ‘public’ was fed up and would somehow rise up and demand change–meaning, apparently, they would demand that public sector workers make no more money and have no better benefits than private sector, non-union workers performing similar work.
So I ask a question like, “Well, what are the options to bring such a revolution about?” Arlene noted in response that some callers have called for a Ronald Reagan like response by Miller–Reagan famously dismissed a bunch of striking air traffic controllers. Trouble is, of course, it is illegal to dismiss strikers in this country simply because they are exercising the legal right to strike, so Miller would be breaking the law by pulling a Reagan. The terminated workers would almost certainly be ordered back to work by the labour board and the city would be ordered to pay them their lost wages. Perhaps Arlene and her listeners might think a Mayor breaking labour laws is the sort of leadership the City needs, but I doubt most Canadians feel that way. A typical caller to a show like Arlene’s might then say, “Well the law is stupid and it should be changed!”.
O.K., so how might that happen? The answer is that the City has absolutely no ability to change that law. It would have to be the province that does that, and not even Mike Harris, the most prolific anti-union Premier the province has seen in over half a century ever seriously considered amending labour laws to permit employers to dismiss any worker who goes on strike. Is Arlene suggesting that the ‘public’ is so angry that a provincial party could get elected in Ontario running on a promise to abolish the right of public sector workers to engage in collective bargaining and/or to strike? I suspect that, outside of Toronto and this particular point in time, nobody really cares about that sort of thing, and that once this strike ends, which it will, life will very quickly return to normal, talk radio hosts will stop talking about public sector workers, and the public will stop talking about public sector labour relations.
What about just treating all city workers as essential and banning their right to strike? Well, besides setting up a Charter challenge exploring the scope of the right to collective bargaining and strike, that strategy would mean substituting interest arbitration in the place of strikes, which is exactly the process that the City (Councilor Michael Walker apparently excepted) and the Provincial government do not want in this strike, because they do not like the uncertainty of that process.
So maybe Arlene is suggesting that the public will revolt by turfing David Miller and replacing him with someone who runs a campaign based on the rhetoric of putting public sector unions in their place. Maybe that will happen. But, again, what could that new Mayor actually do to put the rhetoric into action? He or she could bargain hard to try and ‘break’ the union, talk tough, refuse to back down, and all that. Maybe a new Mayor would threaten to contract out the city services. My very quick scan of the last collective agreement indicates that the employer is restricted in its right to contract out bargaining unit work (from the Local 416 Agreement, see about page 95-96):
The City confirms that during the term of this Collective Agreement and any extension by law, there shall be no new contracting out of work of the Local 416 bargaining unit resulting directly or indirectly in the layoff or loss of employment of permanent employees.
If the City attempted to eliminate that clause, and to contract out garbage collection, daycare services, etc., there would no doubt be another strike a few years from now. And we will be right back where we are now. So, I will watch for that uprising Arlene is urging, but I think the odds are better that a 60 year old could win the British Open.