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The CUPE labour crisis has been averted, but peace is likely to be short-lived

CUPE Local 79 president Tim Maguire speaks at a rally of his members in Nathan Phillips Square in February.
CUPE Local 79 president Tim Maguire speaks at a rally of his members in Nathan Phillips Square in February.

Crisis averted.

Following a work-to-rule campaign and a couple of weeks of frosty negotiations, CUPE Local 79, the union representing Toronto’s inside workers, reached a deal with the city last week. CUPE Local 416, repping the city’s outside workers, reached a deal last month.

So, hey, good news. There will be no lockouts or strikes for two of the city’s largest unions.

Uncollected garbage won’t pile up and create neighbourhood Mount Trashmores. Registration for swimming lessons and other recreation programs will proceed in its regular totally chaotic way, pitting parent against parent in virtual cage matches for the limited spots available. The business of the city will roll on.

Give Mayor John Tory credit for that. This round of negotiations didn’t look easy, but both sides always seemed respectful.

But the news isn’t all good. Lurking underneath this moment of labour success is the fact that the city’s ability to continue reaching good deals from its workers is limited by the nonsensical budget situation.

Put yourself in the shoes of a city worker for a second. And try to take politics out of the equation.

In that scenario, your employer keeps telling you that they can’t afford to pay you more — hell, their best offer for wage increases probably won’t even keep pace with annual inflation.

Now, also consider that despite the city’s claim it can’t afford to increase wages, there’s ample evidence pointing to the fact that it could.

There’s the sweetheart deals with the police union. (The cops got an 8.64 per cent raise over four years in their last contract, compared to the five per cent raise over four years in the CUPE 416 deal.)

There’s the continued reality that, despite crying poor when it’s convenient, a majority of city councillors have little trouble spending billions on projects of dubious value (like the Gardiner East and the Scarborough subway).

And there’s the mayor’s insistence that property tax increases be held below inflation, even though rates are already lower than every other municipality in the GTA.

In this environment, is it really possible to talk about a fair deal?

Still, given that any kind of work stoppage would have likely only whipped up a frothing anti-union sentiment from the public, labour negotiators were smart to take what they could get this time.

But don’t kid yourself.

The city’s long-standing budget strategy isn’t likely to preserve long-term labour peace. It relies too much on workers accepting less in order to offset artificially low tax rates, the monstrous growth of the police budget and big spending on needless projects.

If this doesn’t change, don’t expect a deal to get done so quickly next time.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2016-03-07T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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