Toronto's labour relations committee has issued a mandate to its negotiators as they head into crucial talks with the city workers that one city councillor calls "extreme."
Tensions between the city and its two major unions — CUPE 416 which represents about 6,000 outside workers and CUPE 79 which represents about 23,000 inside workers — have been rising ever since their contracts expired at the end of 2011.
A strike or a lockout could come in early February, some predict.
The labour relations committee, chaired by deputy mayor Doug Holyday, met Thursday to take stock of the negotiations and to issue new instructions. The terms and language of the mandate are confidential, but Coun. Janet Davis said she doesn't believe it will lead to a negotiated settlement.
"I think this is quite an extreme mandate that we haven't seen in the city before," she said.
Fletcher wouldn't reveal any of the details but did say that she was "concerned" that "it doesn't reflect what the majority of council would want or the public would want" when it comes to negotiating a settlement with city workers.
Tough talks ahead
Holyday, speaking to reporters after the meeting, described the state of 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," said Holyday.
CUPE 79 is scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday with a conciliator and city negotiators.
CUPE 416 hasn't been at the bargaining table since mid-December and no talks are scheduled. something Holyday said was adding to the tension.
"I think the direction we've given our negotiators is a good direction. I think it's in the best interest of the taxpayers and hopefully we'll get a negotiated settlement,' he said.
But he also made it clear the negotiators will be looking for significant changes to the contract language.
"If we're going to get the efficiencies we have to get ... to balance our books and to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers, some of these matters have to change," Holyday said.
The deputy mayor was referring to the seniority issue, something Mayor Rob Ford has demanded the unions give up.
That issue of job security is at the top of the list, followed by wages and benefits and giving more control to managers.
Training begins next week
One interested observer of Thursday's meeting was Richard Majkot, the executive director of the professional management association with the city, the group that would take over some of the functions of the unionized workers in the event of a strike.
Majkot said the current climate of labour relations between the city and its unions is not good. "In that environment it's going to be difficult to negotiate a collective agreement, especially if the employer is looking for cutbacks and restrictions," he said.
Majkot said training for his members will begin next week and he was pessimistic when asked for his evaluation of the negotiations.
"If I was a betting man I'd bet on a work disruption of some sort in the next couple of weeks."
If the unions and the city remain deadlocked the labour minister can file what is called a 'no boards' report — 17 days later a strike or lockout could take place.