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Miller to McGuinty: Butt out of city's election

Reaction came after Premier said he wants to see a debate on transit workers’ right to strike

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Karen Howlett

Mayor David Miller accused Premier Dalton McGuinty of meddling in municipal elections yesterday after the Premier said he wants to see Toronto’s mayoral candidates debate whether the city’s transit workers should lose the right to strike.

Mr. McGuinty said he welcomes a private member’s bill put forward by Liberal MPP David Caplan that would declare the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service, making future strike action by union members illegal.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for a really good public debate on this issue,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters. “I think it would be healthy if this became something that achieved a little more prominence during the course of the campaign.”

But what’s debated in the city’s mayoral election is none of Mr. McGuinty’s concern, Mr. Miller said.

“The Premier intervened in a municipal election. And that’s not right,” he said. “Is he going to do this in Ottawa, where a former cabinet minister is running? Is he going do it in Hamilton, in Windsor?”

After ending a two-day transit strike in 2008 with back-to-work legislation, Mr. McGuinty said his government would not declare the TTC an essential service unless Mr. Miller requested such a move. But city council later narrowly defeated a motion and the status quo remained. Such an arrangement, in which labour disputes would go straight to third-party arbitration, would be disastrous for the city’s finances, Mr. Miller said yesterday.

“There would be a huge cost and we cannot possibly afford that. … I think it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest the city should have to accept the burden of those costs when the province doesn’t do it.”

The Premier has made it clear that his government wants a driver’s seat on the Red Rocket. For the first time in at least seven years, his government did not provide funding for the transit commission before the city tabled its budget last week. Mr. McGuinty said at the time that any permanent annual financial support for the TTC would be conditional upon the province asserting some control over the transit operator.

If the council elected in October lends its support to making the TTC an essential service, the province would seriously consider introducing legislation, he added. But he denied that Mr. Caplan introduced the bill at his urging.

Mayoral candidate and former deputy premier George Smitherman said in a statement that there are “valid concerns about the cost of arbitrated wage settlements that go along with deeming a service, such as the TTC, essential.” However, he “applauds” the bill “as it reflects an appropriate source of concern about the cost of a TTC strike to the city and commuters.”

Mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi said the idea is a laudable one, if the province plans to help pay the associated costs of rising wages it would entail.

“I, like the Premier, think transit is a critical subject and we need to be debating it openly and fully in this campaign. [But] whether to term it an essential service from a labour standpoint wouldn’t be one of my top three priorities,” he said. “If someone could show me how it gets us better service for less, then I’m happy to look at that piece. But in the meantime, I think we need to be debating the other aspects of the TTC.”

Mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone wasn’t impressed with the idea. “It doesn’t make any good labour-relations sense, it doesn’t make any business sense from the taxpayers’ point of view.”

Labour lawyer Stewart Saxe said the transit system is in the awkward position of being “half pregnant.” After the province legislated the union back to work almost immediately in 2008, both parties are likely to negotiate any future disputes with that precedent in mind.

Under the circumstances, he said, unpalatable essential-service legislation is probably the best way to go.

“Both parties are going to assume they can count on the government passing back-to-work legislation. … Either the city’s going to have to take one, possibly two, long strikes to break the habit … or we’d better have a decision that it’s an essential service to avoid the problem entirely.”