City’s handling of garbage strike stunk, mayoral candidates agree

City hall needs to make big changes in the way it handles labour disputes, the mayoral frontrunners agree.

The candidates weighed in on labour issues at Tuesday’s debate at St. Paul’s Bloor Street church in Yorkville. Moderated by Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda, the debate was presented by the Greater Yorkville Residents’ Association, the Yonge Bloor Bay Business Association and the Toronto Midtown Business Association. Community members asked the candidates how they would have handled the 40-day garbage strike of 2009.

Rob Ford said there was only one option — take legal action to force striking employees back to work.

“You can’t go 40 days and have people’s backyards filled with garbage,” he said. “You go to court and force them back to work. That’s it. You can’t sit here and have the unions dictate how you’re running the city.”

Ford also said if he were mayor, there wouldn’t be a strike in the first place, pointing to his plan to invite competitive bids from both private companies and unions for garbage collection contracts. But according to Joe Pantalone, contracting out isn’t a solution.

“You think that strike was a problem?  You wait until these three gentlemen want to contract out,” Pantalone said, referring to Ford, George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi. “Any time there’s a contract, there’s going to be super strikes everywhere … Do you want this city to stop running?”

Smitherman blamed city council for taking raises prior to the 2009 strike, saying it undermined the credibility of their negotiations. He said if he becomes mayor, he’ll offer a money-back guarantee to taxpayers in the case of a strike.

“The city of Toronto actually saves money because of a strike,” he said. “They should have given the taxpayers those dollars back.”

Rossi also spoke to the importance of credibility in labour negotiations. He said as mayor, he would take a pay cut to set an example.

“As mayor I would take a 10 per cent cut, I would freeze it for four years. Not because I’m asking others to take a 10 per cent cut, but because in every organization that I’ve run, leadership starts by example at the top,” Rossi said. “If you don’t have the moral authority to negotiate, you lose that strike before it even begins.”

While Pantalone reminded his fellow candidates that hindsight is 20/20, he agreed the garbage strike was mismanaged.

“The workers lost their wages, the city didn’t do its job and the general population suffered,” he said. “Obviously, that strike was one where nobody came out smelling like roses.”