Instead of complaining about the piling up garbage, residents of Canada’s biggest city should stand up and speak out in support of the striking workers.
As the Toronto city workers’ strike enters its third week, I remain steadfast in my support for those on the picket lines. So should you. They’re on the front lines of a fight for good jobs for all of us, all over the country. They’re holding the line, and we must hold it with them.
Toronto Mayor David Miller wants to use the current economic crisis as an excuse to roll back hard-won labour gains. He wants concessions. He wants give-backs. When the economy improves, will those benefits be restored? Only the very naive think so. The lower standard will become the new normal. Once you give up benefits, you never get them back.
The striking CUPE workers are holding the line against a drive to save money by eroding the quality of their jobs – and our quality of life.
If these workers are finally worn down by management and public pressure, their concessions will trigger a feeding frenzy in municipalities across Canada. If the largest city in the country can get away with this, it will signal open season on workers.
And when the public sector gets away with it, the private sector, always eager to cut costs at the expense of workers, will feel even more entitled to slash pay and benefits than they do now.
When city workers’ job standards and quality of life falls, standards for all workers will fall.
Rather than sneer, “I don’t have that, why should they?” – essentially advocating for a race to the bottom – we could ask, “Could I have that, too? Could more employers offer that benefit? Am I not worthy of that benefit?”
Toronto settled its contracts equitably with parking employees, with EMS, with transit, fire, and police. Sanitation workers want only what every other union has already gotten. They want their contract honoured.
Other municipal workers received “3/3/3″ – a 3-per-cent pay increase in each of the next three years. The sanitation workers have been offered 0/1/1.
The workers of these two CUPE locals earn an average of $40,000-$45,000 a year. That puts them squarely in the working class (the lower-middle class if you will). It’s not a bad living, but you can’t sell that as rich. If you live within that income bracket, that small cost-of-living increase can be the difference between a manageable budget and a stressful, precarious life.
Another important issue in the fight is seniority. Workers who have accrued a certain amount of hours have the ability to choose their own shifts. For many people, that means being able to work the day shift as one is aging and less able to stay up all night. That “benefit” – I hesitate to call it that, it seems so basic – is threatened, too.
When you take a sick day, is it a day with full pay? The CUPE workers have their first three sick days with full pay, but the fourth is at 75 per cent pay, and the fifth at 50 per cent pay. They can either use part of a vacation day to make up the difference, or manage without. Would you like that?
And what about the banked sick days, that issue that seems to get under the public’s skin like a bad rash? I have spoken to people who used their banked sick days when they had cancer. If you are unlucky enough to get cancer, would you like to have a job when you return? Would you like to be paid while you’re sick? Bankable sick days is a form of a short-term disability plan.
In previous negotiations, the City of Toronto wanted bankable sick days: it’s an incentive to keep attendance high. Bankable sick time keeps people from doing what I do with my few measly, use-them-or-lose-them sick days: take them whether I’m sick or not.
More importantly, the option to cash in unused sick days upon retirement represents deferred wage increases. The union agreed to go without wage increases during several negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s, in return for this cash-in option. And now that it’s time to pay up, the City wants to change the terms of the contract. How would you feel if that were done to you?
I’ve heard people incensed that sanitation workers have “the nerve” to call themselves essential services, like fire, transit, or police. If trash collection isn’t an essential service, why would anyone care that they are on strike? Is day care an essential service? Are parks and recreation essential? They are essential to maintaining a liveable city.
Many of these CUPE workers do jobs that are tough and dirty. They are on the front lines of public health, exposed to potential disease and contagion regularly. (That’s another reason they need good benefits.) If you think sanitation work is a cushy job, I ask: Do you want to do it? If you think $40,000 a year is too high for a trash collector, how much would you want to do the same job?
These are the people who keep our cities liveable. They deserve a decent life. They are not asking to buy a second home and drive a BMW. They are asking for a decent working life and a safe old age.
In my private-sector workplace, layoffs and benefit cuts have seriously impacted the quality of our jobs. We work harder for less compensation. And because we are not unionized, the changes were made unilaterally: take it or leave it. Last week, when my co-workers were complaining about the strike, I asked them to imagine how our own lives might have been improved if we had access to collective bargaining.
I don’t have the best job out there, but I want those better jobs to exist. Good union jobs raise the standards for all workers. I thank the striking Toronto city workers for holding the line – for all of us. The inconvenience caused by the strike is temporary, but we need good jobs in our community for generations to come.