On February 7th, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford threw down the anti-worker gauntlet declaring that he would privatize garbage pickup in the city. Stating, “We are doing this so we are not going to go through another 40-day garbage strike like we did last year,” he notified Toronto’s outdoor municipal employees union, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 416, that he plans to put in a competitive bid process for residential waste and recycling pick up west of Yonge Street, while increasing the use of private companies who operate litter vacuums and remove trash from parks. This is a blatant attempt at union-busting that needs to be opposed by every member of the working class.
Ford was too afraid to face questions from the media after his attack on Toronto workers, but his right-wing henchman, councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, let the cat out of the bag with their real intentions: “We can look at this potentially as a first phase. A number members of council, including the mayor, would look at contracting-out the entire city at some point in time.”
This represents a significant step forward in Ford’s plan to privatize waste pickup in Toronto, which was one of his primary election promises and has been discussed extensively in the media since he came into office. This notification came as no surprise to the members of CUPE 416 who realized that they were in for a fight when Ford was elected. The union local has responded by holding a press conference on February 7th and a special general meeting on February 10th to launch a campaign against Ford’s privatization plan.
In the press conference, Local 416 president Mark Ferguson spoke about the greater efficiency of public waste collection in terms of costs and quality of service and highlighted the purely ideological and fiscally irresponsible nature of Ford’s privatization plans. He noted the fact that the cost to collect curbside waste in Toronto is 30% below the provincial average. He also pointed to the shaky and constantly changing figures that have been provided by Ford and others regarding the potential cost-savings that could be accrued from privatizing the city’s waste services. One of the main reports cited by media advocates of privatization was produced by the right-wing anti-union C.D. Howe Institute, which stated that Toronto could save $49-million through privatization. During his election campaign, Ford cited $20-million as the potential cost-savings, but he now says that amount will only be $8-million. Even Doug Holyday, Ford’s deputy mayor, has admitted that the figure of $49-million, published in the C.D. Howe Institute report, has no credibility. Ferguson highlighted the fact that Ford’s financial flip-flopping betrays his real incentive for privatizing waste and recycling services, saying, “This is purely an ideological attack on the public sector and to do a favour to his friends on Bay Street,” by giving them lucrative contracts and “selling off valuable city assets to make friends” with them. Every class-conscious worker understands that privatization merely swells corporate profits off the backs of everyday workers. Frequently, “savings” made off poverty-level wages are eaten up by payouts to shareholders. In addition, service and environmental standards are cut in the pursuit of money making shortcuts.
Ford’s privatization plan comes up against a major roadblock in the form of the union’s negotiated job security language. This language states that any employee losing their job to outsourcing or technological change must be found another job with the city at the same rate of pay. The right-wing calls this “Jobs for life,” but workers fought long and hard to gain this protection, including a 16-day strike against former mayor Mel Lastman in 2002, precisely to protect themselves against luddites like Rob Ford. In terms of the impact that the proposed privatization plan will have on the city workers, there are currently about 920 permanent, front-line staff who collect waste and recycling from curb-side locations and public waste bins. However, official reports from the Ford administration claim that only 300 permanent workers will be affected by the privatization west of Yonge St. Whether it is 300 or 900 that are affected is immaterial; Ford and the right-wing have stated that all of these jobs are on the chopping block eventually. However, the workers’ job security language paves the way for a major confrontation in 2012.
CUPE 416’s contract expires on 31st December 2011 and the municipal administration is setting its sights on the job security language that makes privatization more expensive. Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, stated, “We’re going to target ‘jobs for life’ whenever we can, because nobody should have a job for life.” They are also tendering bids for garbage collection in the event of “service disruptions.” It doesn’t take a genius to see that they are organizing scabs to cross picket lines for a likely lockout to remove job security from the workers. Anybody who thought that past strikes were ugly haven’t seen anything yet. Imagine a labour dispute, with widespread use of scabs, where a defeat results in all the workers losing their jobs to privatization. The workers will fight like tigers to prevent this, but it is vitally important that work be done now to explain the issues and mobilize a wide base of active support. CUPE 416’s anti-privatization campaign launch meeting was relatively well-attended by union local members, with 600 showing up and several supportive city councillors speaking in support of the union, and vowing to fight against privatization in city council. Local 416’s report on the event included a quote from a parks worker about the success of the event, who called it “the best I’ve ever attended, ever.” In addition to meetings like this, the local plans to reach out to the public through advertising campaigns and community meetings promoting public ownership. All of these measures are definitely necessary for the union to build any kind of solidarity with the broader working class population, especially if garbage service is suspended next year due to either a lockout or strike. But, what the union really needs to do is to mobilize the entire union movement in the city to fight against privatization, while also approaching the public with slogans that signal the need for a militant working class fight back against Rob Ford’s anti-working class agenda. The current strategy of Local 416’s leadership rests solely on the promotion of findings from supposedly unbiased independent policy reviews about the economic viability of private vs. public infrastructure and community service provision. This approach fails to go beyond an appeal to an imagined middle class population and gives very little to other workers to get active around on an explicitly working class basis.
What CUPE 416 and the labour movement as a whole need to do to effectively respond to the gauntlet thrown down by Rob Ford is to mobilize a broad working class fight back against his agenda that reaches out to non-unionized workers. This especially includes the frontline employees of Turtle Island Recycling, who currently pick up garbage and recycling in Etobicoke and sort it at the company’s Cherry Street warehouse, in which workers, many of whom are temps, risk and damage their health everyday sorting garbage for as little as $10.25 per hour. Workers at Turtle Island have repeatedly tried to organize a union but have been beaten back by repression, company spies, and the firing of activists. CUPE needs to put demands on the table that go beyond the usual labour relations, which just looks to the narrow issues of the workers in a particular bargaining unit. To gain the solidarity of these unorganized workers the union must put their issues on the table, too: pay, benefits, health and safety rights — not just for union members but for all workers, starting with those at Turtle Island who must be given the right to organize without victimization. Instead of scaling back CUPE’s job protection language, it should be expanded to all workers at Turtle Island. Any worker fired for union organizing there should be given a job with the city!
Proceeding from there, it is easy to make the call that unionized workers are in fact fighting for the interests of all. People will see that a defeat for CUPE garbage workers represents another step in the Wal-Martization of all working class jobs. In France, Greece, and other European countries the labour movement has been able to mobilize people against attacks on individual sectors because they have explained that a defeat of one part of the working class is a defeat for everybody. The Canadian labour movement, for instance, would never think to mobilize anybody but seniors over retirement and pensions issues. But in France, millions of youth protested against raising the retirement age, precisely because they understood that this would impact the number of jobs available to young workers. Free public transit is another demand that crosses the boundaries between the organized and unorganized workers. The narrow approach to labour relations is leading to atomization and defeat; a class-struggle approach that takes the view of the entire working class can mobilize across all sectors for victory. If CUPE 416 takes this approach, and insist that the labour council, the OFL, and the NDP do likewise, then we can break the back of the Rob Ford attack and prepare the way for victories both on the industrial and political front.
Toronto civic workers are experts at throwing things in the trash — they should start with Rob Ford.
No privatization of civic services!
For union rights, wages, and benefits for all workers!
Dump Rob Ford in the garbage, not union workers!