The Toronto Municipal Strike:
Who Do We Get Mad At?

By Sam Gindin

Public sector strikes are frustrating to both the public and the strikers. The public is upset with losing daily services they have come to depend on, while the strikers are upset with the apparent lack of respect for the work they do. Though the attitudes of the public may not be decisive, they are increasingly a key factor in the outcome of strikes. A recent newspaper headline, referring to one of the leaders of the current strike of Toronto civic workers, captured the extent to which at present, public opinion—though angry at both sides—stands decidedly against the union: “Is Mark Ferguson [President, Toronto Civic Employees Union] the most hated man in Toronto?” (Toronto Star, July 20, 2009).

The issue in the strike is basically that the City is facing a financial squeeze while the workers have stubbornly refused to see this problem resolved at their expense. That financial deficit, it is clear enough, reflects two events that go beyond the current negotiations. First, for some time now provincial and federal governments have shifted programs and costs to the municipalities without a corresponding shift in revenue. Second, the current financial crisis has spread to the overall economy with major impacts on the budgets of all municipalities, including Toronto.

In both cases, no one can credibly blame the workers for the City’s financial squeeze. Why then the vitriol against the workers and their union?

Where is the anger?

Where is the anger at the Provincial Liberals or Federal Tories for the cutbacks that were causing the deterioration in local services before the strike? Why is the Mayor of Toronto—our Mayor—not highlighting the pressures Queen’s Park and Ottawa have placed on the city’s budget and perhaps made the present strike virtually inevitable? Why, rather than taking this as a given, is the Mayor not leading a challenge against the policies of higher levels of government—all the more so when the deep recession we’re in increases local needs and when the official policy of all levels of government is to allegedly stimulate the economy. How does cutting back wages stimulate spending?

Where is the anger at the economic elite who so shamelessly rewarded themselves with scandalous salaries and pensions on the way to causing or at least being complicit in the current economic catastrophe? Why blame neighbors and other workers who have tried to set some decent community standards for pay and benefits, and—as we confront who will pay for “fixing” the current mess—are we letting those most to blame yet most privileged off the hook?

It may very well be that reversing the downloading and the tax-cuts to those who were truly irresponsible is not enough. If we want a Toronto that maintains and improves its services while treating its workers decently, then more may be necessary and someone must pay for this. There is no justification in doing so on the backs of a particular group of workers that provide (as the strike shows) crucial services to our communities. If it’s a collective problem, then we should all share in its resolution. Wouldn’t the fairest response be to raise taxes on all Torontonians (which includes city workers) and doing so based on ability to pay (to also offset the dramatic growth of inequality within the city)?

Even so, there is one final set of questions that needs to be asked. Is the City’s response to its workforce, which came into this set of negotiations defensively in terms of their overall demands, really about the City’s deficit or is something longer-term at stake? Has the City, encouraged by other politicians and an aggressive business class, decided that this is the moment to exploit the crisis and make longer-term labor-management changes in its favor? Does the strike therefore reflect not a breakdown in negotiations but a conscious strategy on the part of the City Administration?

Who should we really be mad at?

Sam Gindin is the Visiting Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University, Toronto.