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Gee: Think banning TTC strikes is a no-brainer? Think again

by Marcus Gee

When Mayor Rob Ford comes to city council this week with a proposal to ban transit strikes in Toronto, many Torontonians will be cheering him on. Hundreds of thousands rely on transit to get around the city every day, so when transit workers walk out, as they did briefly in 2008, the city suffers.

That is why Mr. Ford has made it one of his early goals to have the TTC declared an essential service. But imposing a strike ban could work against two of his other important goals: better customer service and lower costs for taxpayers Consider cost first. It seems logical that when you rob unions of their biggest weapon, the right to strike, then the gains they will be able to wrest from the employer will be smaller. In fact, research shows that taking the right to strike away from public-service workers results in richer settlements that cost the taxpayer more.

With no threat of a strike, union and management often drag their feet in negotiations. When talks bog down, the job of reaching a settlement usually goes to an arbitrator. Arbitrators like to be fair and arbitrated settlements can be generous. Police and firefighters each got settlements of around 3 per cent a year in recent contracts.

A C.D. Howe Institute study that looked at more than 6,000 contract settlements since 1976 found that declaring a service essential led to higher wage increases and pay levels. It calculated that the TTC could face a $6-million annual increase in its wage bill if strikes were banned. In its own look at the issue, TTC management found that if the TTC had been deemed an essential service when it negotiated its 2005 agreement, the cost would have been $11.2-million higher over the contract’s three-year term - not a result designed to please a cost-cutting mayor or those who voted for him.

Even deputy mayor Doug Holyday, a veteran waste watcher who contracted out garbage collection when he was mayor of Etobicoke, worries about the cost of a strike ban. He told city hall’s executive committee last week that higher contract costs, compounded over decades, could end up costing the city tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars. “I’m suggesting to you that we don’t have that kind of money.”

He will vote for the motion to ask the provincial government to make the TTC an essential service, but only because, as Mr. Ford’s new deputy, he doesn’t feel he can break with the new mayor so early.

Along with having the potential to raise the TTC’s costs, banning strikes could make it difficult to negotiate new, more flexible work arrangements aimed at improving customer service on the transit system. Councillor Gordon Perks, of Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park), says that with an arbitrator deciding the tough issues, it could get harder “to deliver the service in novel, creative, outside-the-box kinds of ways.”

Gary Webster, the TTC’s chief general manager, opposes a strike ban. He says that if union and management both know that their disagreements are ultimately going to arbitration, “there is less incentive to compromise and be reasonable. You end up with a long list to give to the arbitrator to settle.”

That’s especially problematic when there are complex issues, such as who goes on the “spare board” of substitute drivers, that an outside party would have a hard time sorting out. Far better to get union and management to hammer out a deal they each can live with. The threat of a strike concentrates minds. The prospect of arbitration lets the negotiating parties avoid tough choices.

Even if a strike ban would raise costs, delay improvements in customer service and complicate labour relations, many Torontonians will back Mr. Ford’s bid to have the TTC declared essential. They will argue that it is worth almost any cost to avoid a transit strike that would paralyze the city and damage its economy.

But here is another problem with the mayor’s proposal: It wouldn’t guarantee an end to strikes. New York City transit workers walked off the job in 2005 despite a law against strikes by municipal workers. TTC workers themselves went on a wildcat strike in 2006. Who is to say they would not do it again under a provincial strike ban?