By Herman Rosenfeld
The Ford administration has wasted little time in moving towards privatizing, selling off, key city services to the private sector. The president of the outside municipal workers union , CUPE 416, noted that Ford, his brother and their allies have cut the vehicle registration tax and are looking to starve the city of needed revenue. On that basis, Ford can cut services, attack the gains of public sector workers and privatize, “anything that is not nailed down” (in the words of Doug Ford, Rob’s senior advisor and ‘the brains behind the outfit’).
In February, the mayor announced plans to hold a city council vote to privatize garbage collection in the west side of the city in May. This is the first of a number of plans, which are said to include parks cleaners, maintenance, recreation centres, community housing, and possibly others. Three million dollars will be spent on hiring an army of consultants, looking for suggestions of things to cut and privatize.
Ford has begun with the garbage collectors, because they are seen as a relatively easy target. Even though thousands of inside and outside CUPE workers were on strike two summers ago, many people remember the garbage workers, and the inconvenience associated with that experience. Moreover, the propaganda coming from the right-wing, media, business and even the previous Miller administration tended to demonize these workers, with claims that their historic contractual gains somehow constituted “privileges”.
One of the rights that CUPE 416 workers have gained is some protection against layoffs, due to privatization.This allows people to find other jobs in the municipality, even if their original jobs have been sold off to the private sector. It remains an important protection for the workers. But, Ford and his friends call this “jobs for life” and this is one gain that they absolutely hate. The local union’s contract is up at the end of 2011 and this is sure to be a target for Ford and the city administration.
Ford and his allies claim that privatizing garbage collection would save the city money and would prevent strikes. But CUPE cites study after study which show that the overall cost of garbage collection is cheaper in Toronto’s public system. One study shows that Toronto residents paid 30% less for trash collection than neighbouring private systems.
This issue of strikes is not the reason for the push towards privatization. Workers can strike whether the service is public or private, and whether strikes are legal or illegal.
The reality is that workers do have fewer rights in privately owned systems, and wage and benefit levels are lower in the private companies that are looking to replace public garbage pickup in Toronto. Public systems have the capacity to change the technology, tools, and methods of garbage pickup to meet the needs of the public. The public system can also respond to the democratically decided-upon desire of communities to change the way solid waste is sorted and collected without regard to maintaining profit levels.
CUPE Local 416 has learned the lessons of past struggles. This time, they are working to engage, educate and mobilize their members as well as others in the community. They are leading campaign against privatization and in defence of public services. Among other things, it includes: organizing members to educate their neighbours, families and social contacts; pressuring city councillors, developing and popularizing educational materials, videos, websites, speakers and advertisements in public places and in the media.
Defending public services, public sector workers and the recipients of public services are key elements in building a strategy of resistance to privatization and the larger austerity-inspired attacks on working people in the city.