On Thursday, the union and the city negotiators went back to the bargaining table under the auspices of a government mediator. This is only the third time in the nearly seven weeks since the strike began that the two sides have met, using the term loosely. The first time, the union presented a proposal to get things going. The City’s team took the offer and left, not to return for five and a half hours. When it did, the only response was no; it was all or nothing. The City was not prepared to move. Especially not to refer the contentious issues to an independent arbitrator which could have seen the strikers back at work the following day.
The second time came at the behest of the government-appointed mediator. The two sides didn’t actually meet; the mediator made several treks between the parties huddled in separate rooms at a local hotel. When it was clear they weren’t getting anywhere, the mediator sent them home. Neither side was talking, to each other or to the media.
So this was the third time. There were some optimistic rumours that there might be a possibility of some movement. If so, the movement would have to come from the city’s team; the union had been doing all the moving to that point without any discernible impact on the City.
CUPE Local 101 is hardly what one would describe as a militant union. They haven’t been on strike since 1979. So what, one might ask, has changed? Why now?
Certainly money doesn’t seem to be a major issue. Yes, the union was asking for more than the 1 percent per year (1.1 in the fourth year) being offered by the City. That was only slightly better than what the outside workers settled for a few months earlier. And the inside workers had been settling for little more than the cost of living for years without a strike vote.
But things are different this time around.
For starters, the union had had a hard time getting the City to negotiate. The union negotiators were ready to talk last fall in the hopes that an agreement could be reached before the contract expired at the end of the year. But the City wanted to wait until the new council had been installed. So the talks were delayed. Yet interestingly, the City had settled with the outside workers, Local 107, back in in the fall even though that contract won’t expire until December 2015, a full year later than of the inside workers.
The election of the new council, eleven of whose members were complete neophytes, had been greeted with relief and optimism by the voters of London. No more infighting, no more embarrassment. But perhaps none were as delighted as the inside workers. Here was a council they could work with and for; here was a council they could trust, and a mayor they could respect. There were smiles throughout city hall at the end of October.
It’s a sharp contrast with the grimaces of pain and disillusionment, of hurt and disbelief, which you see on the faces of those who walk the picket line in front of city hall today.
Looking back at the chain of events, some speculate that the strike was orchestrated by the City Manager and Chief Human Resources Officer. How else would one explain the City’s demand for contracting out and the removal of five departments – planning, information technology, communications, security and payroll—from the bargaining unit? True, that demand didn’t stay on the table long, but it would be a red flag to any union. That could only be an attempt to gut the union.
There were the other concessions demanded as well. There was the demand that all employees in the bargaining unit be subject to being scheduled to work between the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. any day including weekends.
On this issue, the general public seems to be unsympathetic. Lots of people work weekends. Why should city workers be any different? “Suck it up, buttercup” is the attitude of many.
But, the workers retort, why after 50 years should weekend work become necessary? What about online applications that allow people to access services 24/7? Besides, many of them already work evenings and weekends where there is a demonstrated need and there is a premium paid for those overtime hours and shifts. But a general provision that anyone can be scheduled anytime? No way.
It’s not just that it’s undesirable: it can also be expensive and dangerous. Working alone downtown late at night or weekends means not being able to carpool; it means finding your car in a dark deserted parking lot or underground garage; it means trying to line up after hours child care; it means not being able to plan family outings or taking the kids to practice.
It’s not as if these workers are fat cats. Despite the mayor’s assertion that the “average” wage is $58,000 per year, most earn substantially less. A few high salaries can skew that arithmetic mean. Most are female and many are sole support parents with mortgages, utilities and property taxes to pay and groceries to put on the table. Their kids need shoes and tuition fees. A 1 or 2 per cent raise will make little difference to their lifestyles. But having to bear the extra burden of unpredictable work schedules certainly will.
Even so, the union offered in its first meeting after it struck to be scheduled from 7 to 7 weekdays only, with a $1.20 per hour premium for the extra hours. The City said no; it wanted what it wanted.
There’s more. There’s the matter of how jobs are evaluated, an evaluation that determines the pay level and the status to ensure pay equity for those doing “women’s work”. At present there is a joint union-management evaluation committee that makes that determination. It had been working well; only twice have the two sides been unable to reach agreement and referred the matter to an independent third party. Only twice in 20 years. But now, the City wants to concentrate that power in the hands of its Chief Human Resources Officer. So jobs could be down-graded and pay cheques reduced even with a collective agreement in place. And jobs could be reclassified out of the bargaining unit.
It’s an untenable position. In the words of the union’s negotiating committee “[W]e are simply not prepared to destroy the integrity of our pay equity and compensation systems by giving the City ultimate power to reduce our wages during the collective agreement.”
And the list goes on. The City has demanded that the union surrender its seniority rights in job promotion and bumping rights. From the union’s perspective, that allows the manager to show favouritism both in promotions as well as determining who should be laid off should a position become redundant. No more locating another job within the city that the senior employee could do.
Finally, there is the removal of early retiree benefits for new hires, creating a two-tier union membership which the union sees as being unfair, especially to younger workers. The union did propose a 15 year waiting period for new hires before becoming eligible for early retirement benefits. That offer too was not accepted.
On Saturday, we learned that Loblaw workers, who had been on the verge of striking, came to an agreement with their employer. A peaceful settlement. Nobody lost any business; nobody lost any wages.
So what’s wrong? Why can’t the City settle with its “valued employees”? Why have single mothers been walking the line for one-third of the regular pay for the last 40 days? Why has the City crippled its own services to its builders and citizens? And where are the leaders we elected just nine months ago?
City Manager Art Zuidema, resident of Brantford Ontario (whose hours of operation are Monday to Friday - 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, closed Saturdays and Sundays) , is insistent that the city has to become more service-oriented. His Service London plan, implicitly endorsed by Council’s Strategic Plan, needs it. Yet, that very plan makes no mention of expanded hours or weekend work. And there is little indication that other comparable municipalities are moving in that direction.
But here is an interesting bit of history. Back in 2007 during my first year on council, then Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Fielding was pushing for a 3-1-1 service modelled along the line of that in many municipalities giving citizens improved access to city services. And he had managed to get a deal for expanded hours with the inside workers to make that possible! But he had actually consulted with the union leadership outside of the contract negotiations process, and gotten its agreement. Ultimately, the council of the day decided not to go forward with the plan; it didn’t fit into the budget. But union concerns about changes in job descriptions and hours of work were resolved through consultation.
A year or so later, that council created a Service Review Committee headed by Nancy Branscombe. The point of the review was to find efficiencies and improvements in services. Meeting after meeting we heard managers describe their departments and how they functioned, functioning which depended on the activities of the inside and outside workers. It was bound to make those workers nervous. What would happen to their jobs, they no doubt wondered.
But Branscombe included them in the review. She met with them, heard their concerns, listened to their point of view. Millions of dollars were saved through that process because, let’s face it, if you want to know where savings are to be had and where improvements can be made, it’s the front line workers who are likely to have the information. You ignore and disrespect them at your own peril.
There is little evidence to suggest that that is what is happening in the current situation. The workers weren’t consulted and even now, when they ask for a plan, (Tell us what you have in mind, show us the need and demand), they get nothing. Nothing from the City’s negotiators or top administrators. Nothing from the Council. Only a dismissive, “Get serious” from the new Mayor. Emails from the public and the workers rarely receive acknowledgement, only the mayor’s newsletter listing the many events he has attended. Pictures, too. But nary a mention of the strike.
But the City is saving money. About one million dollars every week. Six million so far and counting. That should go some way to funding some of the projects that the City manager and the Council would like to see move forward. And as long as the public doesn’t complain, who cares?
And the public isn’t complaining. After all, they’re not much inconvenienced by the strike. The work of the inside workers is largely invisible to the general public, most of whom have never visited city hall. It’s only people in need of social services who feel the pain and most of them lack a voice. And builders. They need their permits and inspections to move ahead and they are getting antsy. Construction season is short. But hey, the City Manager can just hire some “replacement workers” (a.k.a. scabs) to give a hand. And encourage those strikers whose bank accounts are being depleted to abandon their colleagues and cross the line; he’ll protect them from any retribution from the union they betray. And, of course, it’s kind of nice for the public to get away with some by-law infractions when no one is enforcing them! Besides, some of the words and actions of the union’s more militant supporters--not the inside workers themselves-- haven’t endeared them to the public. Yelling from the public gallery or suggesting that the labour movement can make or break the council is not likely to improve public opinion of unions or encourage empathy with the plight of the workers.
But what about the council? What is it to do? What can it do?
No doubt there is a lot of talk going on behind the scenes. But the talks are in camera and not for public consumption. Here we have the most significant challenge that this council has met or is likely to meet, and yet the constituents have no idea of where the person they elected stands on the matter. Are they all solidly behind the City Manager and the Chief Human Resources Officer? Surely, there are some who would not be able to tolerate hiring scab labour. Granted, it appears they didn’t learn of it until after the City Manager announced that he would be doing that. But still, they could tell him to cease and desist. After all, as I tried to remind them early on, they direct administration, not vice versa. They are leaders, not followers. They have power; they can be in charge if they want to be. That’s why we elected them.
I’m sure many of them are very conflicted, and so they should be. Perhaps it is asking too much that a newly-elected council so lacking in experience could take an independent principled stand. I find it hard to believe that most of them support in their hearts the position that the City is taking, the position of starving the inside workers into submission. Yet no one has spoken out. No one has said, I can’t be party to this. I will not be a party to this.
Of course, councillors can’t inject themselves directly into the negotiations and no one would expect them to do so. And they can’t reveal what happened behind closed doors.
But they can walk out of that door. They can’t be forced to witness and remain silent. They have a choice.
Still, it’s a lot to expect of newbies. And since Deputy Mayor Paul Hubert has declared a conflict, there are only three there with any experience- the Mayor, whose talk of valued employees sounds hollow, Harold Usher and Bill Armstrong. And perhaps they are being misinformed about the negotiations. Perhaps they don’t know that from the beginning the City’s team was ill-prepared and unable to make any decisions without going back to the Chief Human Resources Officer. Perhaps they don’t know that the information they are getting is limited and second and third hand. Have they even been informed of what the City’s bottom-line position is? What the end goal is? Are they afraid to ask?
Because make no mistake: although the City may be saving a few dollars now, it is going to pay in the long run. And it is the Council that will bear the brunt of the fallout. It is not only the inside workers who have lost trust and respect for their betters. So have the outside workers and the firefighters, those workers whom the City would not have dared to treat the way it has these compliant, mostly female, mostly invisible inside workers. That resentment is likely to find its way into the day to day service that the councillors depend on. It will take longer for calls to be returned, for reports to be submitted, for questions to be answered. It is likely to last a long time.
This strike need never have happened. The City could have actually talked to the union well ahead of contract negotiations. It could have sent negotiators prepared and authorized to negotiate. It could have avoided putting items on the table that were purely provocative. And when the strike did occur, it could have been ended quickly had the City been willing to return to the bargaining table, to consider seriously the concessions offered, to be willing to send to arbitration any unresolved items.
What was the City afraid of?
The Mayor said we needed a “made in London” solution. But this standoff has made London look like a city without a heart, not a city that will attract the best and the brightest.
Here it is in the words of someone on the picket line more than a week ago:
The city has a lot to lose, and it’s not concessions.… [F]or me and most of my fellow co-workers, returning to work will be difficult. Losing respect and slowly gaining it back is one thing after this strike. Losing Trust and gaining that back, almost impossible. For the latter, I think some people will have to leave the corporation for that to happen. London is on the verge of losing some really good talent here; I have heard that some of our best talent are seriously considering applying out.For now, a media blackout is in place. Perhaps a resolution is at hand. Certainly the workers desperately want one. My guess is, so do the councillors. And, I have no doubt, so do the vast majority of managers who are left to try to hold things together.
But who, I wonder, doesn’t?