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Editorial: Designate TTC as 'essential'

A worthwhile point sometimes lost in the debate over declaring the TTC an “essential service” is that Queen’s Park has already this year passed a law acknowledging that it is.

That was in April, when 8,900 Toronto Transit Commission workers exercised their right to strike and raised picket lines on a Friday night. The Legislature met over the weekend to pass a back-to-work bill that quashed the strike before Monday morning’s rush hour. A three-year contract was eventually reached through binding arbitration.

Toronto City Councillor Cesar Palacio argues that the Legislature’s action was, for all practical purposes, a temporary essential services designation. He is right. Indeed, it would have been irresponsible for our MPPs to have ignored the vital importance of public transit to Toronto’s economy and to the many residents - including students, seniors and the poor - who have no other means of traversing the city.

But if the TTC is so necessary that its workers are forbidden from striking beyond a weekend, why not formally acknowledge that the service is what it is - “essential” - and spare the public two days of disruption before the inevitable back-to-work law is passed?

That’s the real issue before Toronto city councillors as they sit down, in a two-day session starting today, to discuss designating the TTC as essential and replacing the strike (or lockout) option with binding arbitration. Councillors don’t have the power make this change on their own. But the Legislature does, and Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he would consider such a measure if council requested it.

Council would be well-advised to take McGuinty up on his offer.

TTC management opposes an essential service designation on the grounds that arbitration tends to deliver higher wage settlements than when union and management negotiators bargain under the threat of a looming strike or lockout. Citing academic research, TTC management concludes that the 2005 contract, reached through direct bargaining, would have cost an extra $11.2 million had a deal been imposed through binding arbitration.

On the other hand, it has been estimated that a TTC strike costs the local economy $50 million a day. So even if the TTC estimates on the costs of binding arbitration are accurate, we are paying money from one pocket to save in the other. Besides, when a strike is ended with a back-to-work order, as has been the recent experience, the dispute ends up in binding arbitration anyway.

We do not lightly advocate taking away TTC workers’ right to strike. But the general public also has the right to be spared unreasonable harm resulting from a job action. Society already recognizes that principle in depriving other groups - including police officers, firefighters and nurses - of the strike option. Toronto City Council should acknowledge the essential nature of the TTC, put the public’s right first, and ask Queen’s Park to act accordingly.