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I Am, Of Course, Speaking To You, Mr. Garbageman

Thirty-nine days.  Thirty-nine excruciatingly long, miserable days ago, Canadian Union of darling spa 005Public Employees (CUPE) Local 416, along with more than 24,000 other city of Toronto workers, decided they needed a little time off.   

It would seem that Local 416 members — the good men and women responsible for collecting Toronto’s garbage — were upset that the city was trying to dismantle a decades-old, and exhaustively archaic, system of banking sick days.  There were a few other issues thrown in for good measure, of course, but Local 416 members would be damned if anyone was taking away their bread-and-butter benefit.  So off they went.

Established in 1963, CUPE Local 416’s non-management employees had long received very generous sick pay appropriations.  Each employee had historically received 18 sick days per annum — PER ANNUM – and any days accrued, but not used, in any given year would transfer to years following.  What does that mean in the real world? Let’s do some quick math: say you worked for CUPE collecting garbage for 25 years and never took a single, solitary sick day.  When you retired, you’d get a big fat cheque from the city of Toronto — really from the taxpayers of Toronto — equal to six months of pay.  An *additional* six months of pay.  If you’re the employee, of course, it wasn’t too shabby — not too shabby at all — but pretty damn shabby when you’re a taxpayer in the city of Toronto footing the annual $250 million IOU.  Needless to say, people were nothing if not irate, and there was much name calling and near- fist-fighting during the 39 day dispute.

How apropos

How apropos

Luckily for us, we didn’t once hit 30C during the gong show strike.  Actually, it was giant-patch-of-four-leaf-clovers lucky for the inhabitants of this fair city. Sweltering heat would have done nothing to make Toronto any fun for anyone during those 39 days. It was bad enough that, in addition to four hour waits to toss garbage into makeshift dumps in our formerly glorious city parks – garbage that you were already paying good tax dollars to have picked up — the strike also shuttered swimming pools, libraries, summer camps and city-run daycares, among other city-run services. Because nothing says “summer” like a stinking city full of kids on vacation with nothing to do.  Ahem.

Luckily for me, I live in a big tall downtown building and as such, the strike didn’t directly affect me.  Buildings like mine typically have private waste removal companies, as do many small and large businesses.  Case in point: the swanky private Toronto club called the Granite Club allowed its members, some who incidentally paid a hefty $53,000 initiation fee to join, to bring their garbage and dump it at the club, who has said private waste removal company. The well-heeled club members, who were apparently too afraid to take their trash to the city-approved transfer stations for fear of said name calling, made hay for at least a few weeks before the Ontario Ministry of Environment eventually shut the service down.  It wasn’t too stupid on the club’s part, actually — word has it that dinner attendance, and therefore revenues, skyrocketed during the strike.  I’d imagine the Granite Club’s website read suchlike: Featured tonight on the Granite Club’s menu: drop off a bag of garbage and pick up a Mexican taco and some guac to go!  Come to think of it, I never heard anything from my club about taking garbage drop offs.  And I just know that the very prestigious Rogers Video Club would have taken bags of trash off its loyal members’ dirty hands.  😉

Naturally, as the strike dragged on, the hyper-local howling monkey brigade that populates Toronto’s news media lurched into full force.Garbage Strike 018  Granted, it was a long 39 days.  I’ll give ’em that.  And the stench did start to waft through the streets, even though it really was the cleanest garbage strike I’d even seen (also, the only one).  Even Neko case said so.  Judging by the media coverage, though, you’d have thought the strike was the Nanking Massacre redux. Combine the coverage of the apparent dog-sized flesh-eating death rats that were supposedly running rampant from the strike with the “Toronto has to call in the Army to deal with the snow” incident, and it seemed Toronto’s national reputation as a city of wimps was sealed.  Maybe it was the reality of facing their own  sh*t that got people so up in arms, where it’s normally whisked away never to be seen again.  I don’t really know.  But, after a few Groundhog Day-style do-overs between the city and the union, the strike mercifully ended.  Finally.  

It was the longest labour dispute in Toronto’s storied labour dispute history and, in the end, the city conceded on nearly every point.  Not only did the union get to keep their sick time (although new hires are not eligible for the program), but they received wage increases *and* are accruing overtime to clean up the mess that was largely their creation in the first place.  Not too shabby.  Not too shabby at all. 

It could be argued that these types of costly disputes may very well be the reason domestic companies are shifting operations to countries like India and China, where they don’t have to worry about striking unions, making things cheaper for all of us.  Because we all know we need our $1 stores to keep our lives ticking.  Obviously, garbage collection and public transportation will never be off-shored, but many, many other things can, and will continue to be.  It could be argued that disputes like these that end up costing cities and taxpayers way more than just tax dollars.  Seeing your beloved city mocked on CNN and being questioned about it from a Newark-based flight crew flying you from San Francisco to Toronto is all, to put it very lightly, most unfortunate.  Basically, it sucks.

Queen Street West: Day 30

Queen Street West: Day 30

There does seem to be one point of agreement between the aforementioned howling monkey brigade and the citizens of Toronto in this whole fiasco, though — this strike, in particular, has likely set labour relations in Toronto back several decades.  Don’t believe that?  Remember the 1994 MLB strike?  The effects of that strike are still being felt today.  And, for my Canadian readers, the 1994 strike was really the beginning of the end for the Montréal Expos, who were purchased by the MLB after the strike effectively destroyed their fan base.  Or, more recently and more locally, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) lockout in 2005 that saw the CBC shut down much of its regular English language radio, television and online services, and blocked their employees from working, after they tried negotiating with their union for over 15 months.  While I haven’t lived in any other Canadian cities, I’ve certainly seen my share of strikes, real and threatened, in my two short years in Toronto.  Some of those have included the Toronto Transit Commission, the LCBO, Via Rail, GO transit, teachers, the city workers and a myriad others I’ve simply forgotten.  So either I don’t hear about strikes happening elsewhere in Canada or the CBC just doesn’t cover them, which is highly unlikely.  

Disputes like these, in my opinion, make you question the world-classness of this supposedly world-class city and it makes you wonder about the impact, real or perceived, when you see other cities being recognized with honours like the Winter Olympics (that would be Vancouver) or being named in the “Top 25 Places in the World to Call Home” by the reputable mook Monocle (that would be Vancouver and Montréal). I’m just sayin’.  🙂

All political commentary and opinion aside, I’m totally thrilled that I can once again walk through the city without having to see, smell, and in some case trip over, the 39 day-old trash spilling into the streets.  It was becoming enough to make your eyes, and nose, absolutely bleed.   

All I know for sure is this: I’ve waited 39 days and my street better be spotless by the time I get home, Mr. Garbageman. I’m leaving now, so you have 30 minutes. Consider yourself warned. 😉

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