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You don’t have to go any further than one of Toronto’s waste transfer stations to see the outcome of free-market thinking and its pervasive and corrosive influence on local government and workers. The strike by city workers, more than 25,000 of them, members of CUPE Locals 416 and 79, is about the push for a low-wage, insecure workforce and the privatization of public services.
Ultimately, the privatization of city services is not about saving money or finding ‘efficiencies’. It is about transferring public tax dollars to the profit margins of private companies. And, sadly, it’s about city workers losing their jobs, and the ratcheting down of standards that protect workers and the quality of our local municipal services.
The vehicle the city intends to drive privatization with is ‘alternative service delivery’ – a method of shedding public services through their outright sell-off, and contracting out to for-profit companies.
A limited number of services are currently on the table, but virtually every city service from child care, building inspection and water and wastewater management are being considered for privatization.
This will not only cost city workers their jobs. It also means the city would create a two-tier workforce. One with good wages, benefits, seniority and protection, and another with low-wages and constant job insecurity, as the city privatizes more services. Yearly the number of workers earning decent wages and benefits would decrease, diminishing workers’ rights, and their negotiating clout.
Workers whether they’re unionized or not, should pay close attention to what’s really driving this strike. The scenario pitting moderate earners against low-wage workers and those earning minimum wage, may soon be common in many workplaces where already workers are facing declining real wages, worsening work conditions and job instability.
Until recently Toronto politicians have resisted the push by the province to privatize local services. Well, not anymore.
Provincial underfunding and offloading of services have crippled Toronto. The city is pleading for financial handouts, and the province is dangling money ‘if only’ council cooperates, busts its unions and begins to comply with the privatization of services.
The Ontario Tories have fostered a hostile, anti-union climate in order to make labour costs more ‘flexible’ and more ‘market-conforming’. Unionized workers get paid on average 32 per cent more than their non-union counterparts. Good wages, good benefits, and safe workplaces are what unions are about and they are the antithesis of the low-wage, contingent workforce sought by multi-nationals ready to scoop up custodial, dietary, garbage, and water services, once they are privatized.
The idea that private is always superior to public, is new to Toronto, but in New Zealand the last 15 years have brought a whirlwind of legislation, restructuring, and privatization of the public sector.
But the New Zealanders soon found that the private sector doesn’t run things better and that public services were drastically eroded in private hands.
Today, there is reinvestment in public services, with a new emphasis, not on ‘efficiencies’ but on quality and full worker participation.
New Zealand is not alone in backtracking on privatization. Indianapolis, which shed the bulk of public services and moved to private, for-profit delivery is now in the process of bringing services back under public control.
What went wrong? Here too, ‘efficiencies’ were nebulous, services eroded, local governments lost control, and workers were demoralized.
Closer to home, when Hamilton contracted out its wastewater plant to a for-profit company, they got a dirty deal. Millions of litres of untreated sewage sludge were dumped into the harbour and residents’ basements. While the private company that pocketed the profits, the cost of clean up was shouldered by the ratepayers.
Just last year, Toronto, was bamboozled by MFP into a technology contract that cost $40 million more than agreed to. This fiasco is a good lesson as to why, contracting out, and privatizing are losing propositions.
But less government, and more private delivery of public services is not just a bad deal for ratepayers, it is also hurting workers.
University of Toronto researchers, found that the forced restructuring and amalgamation on Toronto has led to increased workload, more job insecurity, increased stress, staffing problems and poor direction from department managers.
Remarkably, workers still take pride in their job, and feel that they are contributing to the overall public good. That’s a tall order, considering many of these jobs are among the smelliest and most backbreaking.
All workers are asking for is respect and stable employment. They refuse to watch the city services they work hard to deliver, deteriorate.
Public services are our great equalizer in a society sharply divided into rich and poor. When governments push privatization, they push a social dynamic of inequality and increasing poverty, homelessness.
Unless nipped in the bud, privatization means an end to good municipal jobs, and an end to quality public services for residents.
While Toronto is leading the charge in negotiating a ‘new deal for cities’, it is forgetting one very important thing: a good deal for its workers and quality public services must be a part of the plan.
Sid Ryan is the Ontario President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 200,000 members who work in the municipal, school board, university, health care, social services and the utilities sectors.