City cool to CUPE wage freeze offer

The union representing Toronto's outside workers says it is willing to accept a three-year wage freeze, in exchange for a new three-year contract.

Offer unlikely to break impasse

One of the unions trying to reach a negotiated deal with the City of Toronto, says it is willing to accept a three-year wage freeze, in exchange for a new three-year contract.

CUPE Local 416, which represents about 6,000 outside workers, says it is making the move in order to try to avoid a confrontation between the city and the union in the coming weeks.

But deputy mayor Doug Holyday, who also chairs the city's labour relations committee, said "there's far more at stake here than wages and benefits."

The two sides have not held face-to-face talks since last year, and earlier this week the conciliator appointed to help bring the two sides together asked for what is called a 'no board' report, which essentially gives the two sides 17 days to reach an agreement. 

At the end of that time a strike or a lockout can occur.

A decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board on whether to issue a no boards report is expected on Tuesday — meaning a strike or lockout could happen as early as Feb. 3.

CUPE 416 president Mark Ferguson said Friday he believes there is still an opportunity to reach a deal. 

"We believe this is an offer that should help protect programs, and bring added stability to city finances. That is why we offered to bargain over this weekend with the City. The City  refused this offer," Ferguson said in a news release.

The union says its offer would save the city about $25 million over three years, based on an annual two per cent wage increase.

"Municipal workers across Ontario with new contracts for 2012 have averaged more than two per cent wage increases for the year. (The City of Toronto also recently negotiated a three-year agreement with the Toronto Police Service which included raises of at least three per cent per year.)," said the release.

Ferguson said the money could go to restoring city services cut during the budget process: "It could, just for example, allow Toronto to keep shared-use pools and splash-pads open, maintain grants to  dozens of community groups, and continue offering free recreation centre programming to youth in priority areas."

But although the offer seems attractive on the surface Holyday said Friday the city wants to get language changed and clauses removed from the contracts which, he says, "stop us from getting to the efficiencies we need."  Job security provisions in the contracts are believed to be a major focus of the city's negotiating team.

A week ago the deputy mayor described the negotiations as "tough."

"Certainly it's a tough situation, we know that, I'm not going to downplay it, but we do want some changes in the contract.  We want to get management rights back in the hands of management," Holyday said. 

The CUPE 416 offer also doesn't include the biggest union at city hall — CUPE 79 — which represents 26,000 inside workers. 

The contracts for both groups expired at the end of 2011.