Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Canada’s Largest City About to Stink

Can you smell it? The stink of rotting garbage in the summer’s sun? Soon residents of Canada’s biggest city – Toronto – may be smelling that foul stench, as outside city employees – including garbage collectors – are gearing up for a strike as early as next week.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 416 which represents Toronto’s outside workers isn’t after wage increases – they want better job security and for the city to payout the past sick leave it owes to the union’s 6,200 members.

Local 416 includes all outside workers – from those parks and recreation staffers that take care of the lawns, gardens and water parks in the city, to ambulance attendants, and garbage collectors. Ironically, the inside workers union is also gearing up for a strike, which could make getting any city-run services next to impossible.

If a garbage strike were to hit Canada’s largest city, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in the summer of 2002, under then-Mayor Mel Lastman, the same union went on strike, leaving stinky garbage piling up all over the city for the 16-days of the strike.

We also happened to have a heat-wave that fair and smelly summer, and as the rotting garbage baked under the hot summer’s sun, rats, cockroaches and other – ahem – forms of wildlife started taking roost in the mess, adding to the problem.

That was the summer the Pope came to Toronto, for World Youth Day, which was the main reason the city became squeaky clean so quick. Politicians didn’t want Canada’s largest city looking and smelling like a garbage dump for the Pope and the thousands coming from around the world to participate in the festivities.

This summer we won’t be so lucky. The Pope isn’t planning on coming to Toronto this summer, so unless we have another form of divine intervention, a strike could last much longer.

Ambulance attendants and paramedics are considered emergency workers, so they can’t legally go on strike. But there will be work-to-rule style shortages, meaning fewer ambulances on Toronto’s roads.

The question which came up during the strike and probably will arise again – should trash collectors be essential emergency services?

We don’t often think about garbage collection as an essential service, we simply toss our trash and recyclables into the correct containers, put them out first thing in the morning, and when we come back from work at the end of the day, they are magically gone.

Problem is – as we witnessed during the strike of 2002 – if that “magic” doesn’t happen, rodents, bugs, even birds all zoom in on the mess, bringing viruses and disease which can cause a major health hazard to humans.

At a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) is labeling the H1N1 Swine Flu a global pandemic, is it really wise for the powers-that-be in Canada’s largest city to allow a labour disruption which may increase the threat from this deadly flu?

Labour unions are not evil groups of people, plotting to destroy society. Without the labour movement previously fighting for equal rights, fair wages, and safe working environments, we’d all have real reasons to hate our jobs.

But sometimes, the best labour leaders need to take a reality check and open their eyes to see what is going on around them, and whether or not it really is in their members – and the publics – best interest to go on strike.

CUPE’s leaders aren’t oblivious to the nature of the global economy, nor are they blind to the fact that Swine Flu is a real concern in developing nations, because of poor sanitation.

If CUPE’s leaders encourage and allow their members to go on strike at this point in time, they aren’t looking out for anyone’s best interests. Just because a garbage collector is on strike, doesn’t make him or her any less susceptible to catching the Swine Flu, should our city turn into a giant trash heap.

Making garbage collectors emergency workers, forbidding them to strike isn’t the answer. What is the answer is having responsible leadership at both the management and union side of the negotiating table. Leaders acting responsibly, by taking a long hard look at what is going on in the world around them, and how their actions or inactions may make that world a whole lot less stable is what we need.

One thing we don’t need in a global economic depression, riddled with H1N1 Swine Flu, is another garbage strike.
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