Toronto civic strike prompts warning against garbage dumping
Many services shut down as busy summer tourism season begins
Last Updated: Monday, June 22, 2009 | 3:33 PM ET
The City of Toronto had little to offer frustrated citizens on Monday afternoon except pleas for more patience, as the strike by the city's civic workers looked headed for a second day.
Twenty-four thousand inside and outside workers — virtually the entire municipal civil service — walked off the job just after midnight, frustrated by six months of negotiations that they say have gone nowhere.
With temperatures rising and the city about to miss its first day of residential garbage pickup, officials took the step of forewarning residents not to even think about illegally dumping their garbage.
"We know that residents are concerned about garbage disposal," said city manager Joe Pennachetti at a news conference at Toronto City Hall. But he warned illegal dumping would not be tolerated.
One of the largest tourist attractions in the city's busy summer calendar is already underway. Pride Week kicked off on the weekend — and culminates on Sunday with a parade that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the downtown.
On Monday the city said the parade will go ahead.
Restaurant owners want action
Pressure has started to mount from businesses that expect to be hurt by the strike.
The group that lobbies on behalf of restaurant owners has released a letter calling for a swift end to the strike, which it says will have a detrimental impact on tourism and restaurant sales.
"As is so often the case, Toronto restaurants are once again 'the meat in the sandwich' as negotiations take place between the city and city workers. There is little that restaurateurs can do to impact negotiations, yet they will be among the business groups most negatively affected," said Garth Whyte, the president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, in an open letter to the city and the unions.
"The outlook for restaurateurs in Ontario is already grim: of all provinces, Ontario is expected to see the largest decline in food service sales in 2009, and with the second-lowest profit margin in the country, at 2.5 per cent, any additional costs or losses in sales spell disaster for this struggling sector," wrote Whyte.
Earlier in the day Toronto Mayor David Miller said that while he was hoping for a short strike, he was also "extremely disappointed" with the union manoeuvre, especially since the city and union bargaining teams continue to negotiate.
"Unfortunately the world has changed in the past year," Miller said in an interview on CBC's Metro Morning. "The city's financial circumstances are extremely difficult and we have to negotiate in the real context of our current financial circumstances — particularly this year and next."Members of CUPE Local 416 set up a picket line outside a water treatment facility in Toronto's west end on Monday morning after they went on strike to back demands for a new contract with the city. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)
Miller said the city's finances make it impossible to give the workers everything they want; for example, the city is facing a "significant" increase in welfare costs because of the recession.
Issues include job security, seniority
The issues standing in the way of a new contract include job security, seniority and a bitterly contested proposal by the city to change its employees' sick plan that would mean scrapping their ability to bank days and cash them out at retirement.
"We're just not in a position — this year and next — to negotiate an agreement that is inconsistent with our financial position," the mayor said.
But union officials have said they deserve the same consideration as other city workers — and they don't intend to allow the city to claw back hard-won rights.
CUPE Local 416 president Mark Ferguson said city negotiators are asking for too much from his outside workers.
"We have concessions on the table that would see senior employees laid off while junior employees continue to work," he said.
For the other union involved in negotiations, the issue is fairness.
"This is about getting a fair deal similar to what everyone else got. Everyone else was able to negotiate a collective agreement without huge takeaways. These are huge concessions. No other City of Toronto workforce has had to negotiate any concessions in order to get a collective agreement," said CUPE Local 79 president Ann Dembinski.
"It is the most demoralized workforce I have seen in years," Dembinski told CBC Newsworld.
The strike has left many in Canada's largest city without child care.
Fifty-seven city-run daycares are closed — affecting about 2,800 children.
Last week, the city warned parents the strike was possible. But most parents have few options. Some are taking the day off work, while others are leaving their kids with relatives.
For Lisa-Mae Petropoulos, there's only one option for her 15-month-old son.
"I'm bringing him to work with me — half days, part days — then I'll work from home with him. This is not our fault this is happening," she said.
Garbage transfer stations planned
The frustration is certain to grow over garbage pickup at 400,000 homes.
Toronto is also about to start a week-long heat wave with temperatures feeling as if they're in the low 30s C. Some worry that garbage piling up on city streets will start to create health problems.
The city has asked homeowners to store their waste for at least the first week. It will be accepting garbage at transfer stations — but residents without cars won't be able to take advantage of that option.
Pennachetti said Monday the city would open extra sites to handle the garbage.
"If the strike continues into the week we will open additional drop-off locations for residential waste across the city," he said.
"We understand people may be frustrated by the inconvenience of waiting to off-load their waste but there will be zero tolerance for illegal dumping."
Toronto's transit system, police, fire and most ambulance services are not affected.
Long-term-care facilities will also remain fully staffed and social assistance cheques will be available.
A similar strike in 2002 ended after two weeks when the province passed back-to-work legislation.