A few thoughts on Garbage Strike '09

Well, it went and happened. CUPE Local 416 and 79 are on strike, stopping sanitation, city day care and a host of other services for our long-suffering metropolis. People are very angry, and perhaps justifiably so. But before everybody swarms into the streets out ofr union blood, it may be wise to put things into context. As always, I'm thinking out loud here. I'm sure you'll disagree, and I hope you'll tell me why in the comments.

Now, I don't really agree with 416 and 79's position. With a recession in full swing and Toronto in the midst of a seemingly interminable  budget crisis, some concessions probably need to be made. But that's an outside view. I can understand the frustration of the city workers who are being asked to give up pieces of their collective agreement. That's just human nature. It's also important to remember that unions are only accountable to their members, not the public. We shouldn't be surprised when a union goes on strike, even when we can't rationalize their bargaining demands. They are simply obeying their own internal logic, and while we don't agree with it, it's hard to justify calling it a capricious or malicious plot against the citizens of Toronto.

We should also recognize that both the City of Toronto and CUPE are being penalized for deep systemic problems in the structue of municipal finance. The city is on the hook for a substantial portion of welfare costs, which (surprise!) always increase in times of economic trouble. But unlike the provincial or federal government, Toronto does not have sufficient taxation power to increase revenue in the face of these growing costs. And the taxes the City can charge - property, automobile, etc. - tend to also decrease during a recession. Rising costs and declining revenue puts Toronto in a bad financial situation, and forces it to seek concessions from its employees. Conflict, angst and a general gnashing of teeth ensures.

As annoying as it is, the strike is also an opportunity to reconsider how we provide municipal services. I'm a firm believer in the right to strike. Unfortunately, in the context of a union of public employees with a monopoly on a variety of essential services, a strike constitutes a disruptive burden on Toronto. We literally have no other options if these workers choose to withdraw their labour. This actually distorts the bargaining proces, as CUPE has disproportionate power at the bargaining table and in bindind arbirtration. It also forces the City into a settlements that slowly but inexorably increase the cost of public services. This is an unaccpetable outcome for taxpayers, and is ultimately unsustainable.

So what is to be done? One possible solution would be to increase the amount of privatization in city services.  The City of Toronto would contract with multiple private service providers for contracts in a region-by-region or ward-by-ward scheme. People living in these areas would have input into bidding process, and could even make important decisions about the level of service - and associated cost - they desired. Employees of these private entities would be free to join a union, just like anyone else. And, if one service provider goes on strike, the whole city isn't affected. What's more, the City could arrange for another company to provide emergency coverage in a given area. This insulates the city from lengthy and expensive collective bargaining, introduces an element of cost-controlling competition, and helps guard against crippling city-wide work stoppages.

That's just one solution. But I'm sure we can all agree a cash-strapped city, a striking union and citizens without services is an outcome that we need to prevent.

In the short-term, I hope everyone can manage their rage and keep the anti-union rhetoric to a minimum. Strikes are no fun. But this one will end. And if we use it as an opportunity to think about improving the current system, then maybe it won't be a total wash.