Friday, June 26, 2009

City Council's Dragon-Pokers

For the last five days, Toronto has been trudging through a city workers' strike - though, like many other things, this is simplified in common parlance to a "garbage strike" because city workers pick up garbage in most of the City of Toronto - bringing a halt to meetings of municipal government. Striking workers have set up a picket line at City Hall, and the city announced that council meetings would be suspended for the duration. Ordinarily this might not be much of a problem, as whether a particular motion gets passed now or later is rarely of much consequence.

It's an unusual time, though. Recently the city inked an agreement with Bombardier to buy new Flexity Outlook streetcars to run on the existing streetcar system and the planned Transit City lines, but the $1.2 billion deal had to have funding committed by June 27th or else it would lapse. The dust-up between City Hall and Ottawa over an improper application for federal stimulus funding was a big enough complication as it is without the strike thrown into the mix.

Nevertheless, important things can still get done. An special session of Council is being held this morning in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the sole purpose of dealing with the streetcar issue - at this point, it looks like the TTC is going to fumble for the rest of the cash itself, although the particulars of its financial gymnastics haven't yet hit the streets. Furthermore, the striking workers won't be picketing the convention centre or otherwise interfering with the meeting. Pretty good, right?

Not for everyone. Yesterday, Councillor Karen Stintz, who sits in City Council's right wing and is one of the more credible contenders for the Toronto mayoralty in 2010, sent a letter to Mayor David Miller on behalf of a loose coalition of councillors called the "responsible government group." In it she criticized the plan for council to sit in the Convention Centre.

"There is absolutely no justification for holding this meeting off site," Stintz wrote in the letter, which was excerpted in the Toronto Star yesterday. "We have critical business to conduct and council should not have any reservations about crossing picket lines to do so."

For hell's sake.

One of the biggest problems with this strike is that neither the city nor the union is in any position to budge. The union, rightly, sees itself as defending concessions it won previously and is unwilling to sacrifice when other unionized city employees, such as police, fire, and EMS, don't have to share it. The city, on the other hand, can't afford weakness. Mayor Miller's always been a friend of the unions, and quickly giving in would only assure his defeat in 2010.

There is already enough acrimony on both sides over justifiable grievances. This situation is bad enough as it is, and what we don't need is for the city to give the union even more of a reason to dig in its heels - and this over something that is, in the long run, irrelevant. In ten years it will be remembered as a historical curiosity, a trivia tidbit or a sentence on a Wikipedia page, as one of Toronto City Council's handful of extraordinary meetings.

Toronto's councillors should work to resolve the issues that face the city before they inflame existing ones.

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