For the first time since the start of the 24 day old strike, I decided to visit the picket lines and talk to workers and other union officials so I could get a more complete picture of what this strike is all about.

The excessive number of City management staff “monitoring” the pickets was mind boggling. I counted at least 11 staff at one location, all of whom were relaxing in garden arm chairs. That didn’t include the private investigator sitting in his car across the street doing video surveillance. Yet there’ve been no issues at this location since the strike began. So why the need for around the clock security?

Local 416 and 79 workers told me that they want the same deal that hydro, fire, police, TTC, Toronto Housing and the Parking Authorities settled on in 2009: a 3 per cent increase per year over the next three years and unchanged sick leave banks. While the focus during this strike has been on garbage collectors, these locals also boast highly skilled, well qualified nurses, health inspectors, bylaw enforcement officers, family support workers and early childhood educators, just to name a few, who’ve been on the picket lines since day one. Some even have advanced university degrees.

Workers said they’re upset about the misinformation that’s been put out to the mainstream media by the Mayor’s office. They told me that 416 and 79 had been budgeted to receive the same contract (with no concessions) as other city workers received this year, yet at the last minute the Mayor presented them with over 100 pages of takeaways. They don’t think it’s right for the City to settle with other locals, increase councilor’s pay and then turn around and say they can’t do the same for locals 416 and 79 because we’re in the midst of a recession.

For these workers, the issue is about fairness and equity. They want the same deal as everyone else: no more, no less.

As for the sick bank, everyone is entitled to 18 days a year that can be carried over. However, due to an arbitrated decision many years ago, the average number of sick days allowed is determined by the employer.  The City allows its employees, on average, 12 days off in a year. But if employees exceed the 12 days, they can be reassigned, demoted or fired, even if they have 200 days in their sick bank.

Employees don’t want to exceed the 12 days for fear of being placed in a City program, where they are monitored every three months for the next two years. As for the sick bank carryover, seriously sick employees have to wait six months before they can apply for long term disability. But you have to use up your entire sick bank first.

Once employees apply for long term disability, nine times out of ten the union has to get involved to fight on their behalf. There have been cases where employees had to wait up to 2 years before they received long term disability benefits. And the current contract offer doesn’t give any short term disability before the long term benefits kick in. But with the current sick bank, employees get 100 per cent of their salary.

Miller’s recent offer of a new short term disability plan might only provide an employee 75 per cent of his salary. Then he has to dip into his sick bank. Over a twenty or thirty year period, his sick bank could be depleted leaving the him with no payout upon retirement.

CUPE local 4400 president John Weatherup doesn’t think the global financial crisis should rest on the backs of workers who did nothing to cause the recession and he never thought the Mayor or city council would try to strip collective agreements during difficult economic times.

“As an employer, I think they’re one of the worst we’ve ever seen,” he said, referring to the City’s refusal to carry benefits through the strike. “These people are without benefits so CUPE will set up a separate structure for it.”

Weatherup also can’t believe the City would waste taxpayers’ money “monitoring” employees walking the picket lines. “It threatens employees,” he said. “It’s really draconian they way they’re behaving. We should get back into the 21st century.”

Weatherup recalled in 1999 when his local was on strike and the employer released its offer to the press in a feeble attempt to divide the union. Miller made a similar move when he released the details of the City’s latest offer.

According to Weatherup, the sick leave issue is “just a phony thing to turn the taxpayers against the workers. There will be no savings on the sick leave plan for years to come. This is just something that turns the citizens of Toronto against the workers because they think CUPE has some sort of  “Cadillac” plan.

Unfortunately, picketers are putting up with a lot of abuse as result of the misinformation. Many of them, who were City of Metro Toronto employees, claimed they went 8 years without a raise in the 1990’s. That’s something many citizens aren’t aware of and why locals 416 and 79 are seeking a fair collective agreement similar to the ones given to other City employees only a couple of months ago.

The Premier needs to upload the costs of social services, transit operations and court services downloaded by the Harris government, said John Cartwright, President Toronto and York Region Labour Council. (Under an agreement announced last October, the costs will be taken back by Ontario’s government over the next 10 years. But the plan won’t be completed until 2018.)

“Two years ago, that was $250 million dollars,” he added. “The City now says it needs to save money because of sick time as a retirement benefit. And the total liability is $250 million. The amount that the provincial government is cheating Toronto is the same amount that the City says they’re going to take out of your hide in order to solve this strike. And that’s wrong.”

Cartwright also said the sick time benefit has been in place for over 60 years as deferred compensation and as a way of curbing the absenteeism rate. Under the previous scheme, employees were not allowed to carry over sick days from year to year.  “Management made a decision to offer accumulated sick days as a retirement benefit in order to deal with the absenteeism issue and have more people on the front lines on a regular basis,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the approach of the City and the Mayor today is to choose the lowest signed agreements as a benchmark when negotiating. In doing so the political leadership is sowing a political minefield that will be manipulated by the right to privatize and contract out work and to create a disrespect and hatred for frontline workers.”


John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.