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politics

What Do City Workers’ Unions Mean When They Talk About “Job Security”?

A stab at translating a particularly prevalent bit of labour-dispute jargon.

Striking library workers rally in front of City Hall on March 18.

A critical issue in the City’s contract negotiations with its unions this year has been what union spokespeople and reporters like to call “job security,” and what City spokespeople like to call “jobs for life.”

With CUPE Local 4948, the union that represents Toronto Public Library workers, still picketing after more than a week, and CUPE Local 79, the union that represents the City’s indoor workers, teetering on the edge of a labour disruption pending a vote on a contentious new contract this Wednesday, these catchphrases are vitally important, not only to the workers but to everyone who relies on the services they provide.

So what, exactly, do they mean?

Protection from layoffs.

One misleading thing about terms like “job security” and “jobs for life” is that they imply that union members can’t lose their jobs. That’s not exactly true. City workers aren’t protected from being fired with cause, but they do have some fairly strong protections against layoffs—protections that the City has been trying to scale back, in an attempt to save money.

CUPE Local 4948 has the strongest layoff protection of the three municipal unions that have been at the bargaining table this year. Here’s an excerpt from the Local 4948 Collective Agreement, Article 18, Section 1:

(i) There shall be no layoffs of full-time and part-time staff for the term of the Collective Agreement.

(ii) Any reduction of days or hours of work shall be deemed a layoff.

That means no layoffs or hours reductions for permanent employees under any circumstances—which, again, is an exceptionally stringent protection even by the standards of other City unions.

We don’t know exactly what’s being discussed at the bargaining table, but judging by what City spokespeople have been telling the media, it’s a good bet that Toronto Public Library’s negotiators are trying to modify that section of the Local 4948 contract somehow, possibly by making it so that those layoff protections are enjoyed only by employees with a certain number of years of seniority.

The City achieved something like that with CUPE Local 416, the union that represents the City’s outdoor workers, earlier this year. That union’s previous contract banned layoffs of permanent employees because of contracting out. Under the new contract, the ban applies only to permanent employees with fifteen or more years of seniority. The City is seeking a similar deal from Local 79, whose now-expired contract also bans layoffs of permanent employees because of contracting out.

Redeployment.

Another important aspect of job security for the City’s unions is what’s known as “redeployment.” Redeployment is what happens when workers do, for whatever reason, lose their jobs, either as a result of layoffs or as a result of organizational restructuring.

Under the terms of their agreements with Locals 416, 4948, and the full-time unit of 79, the City and Toronto Public Library can’t just reassign or get rid of whomever it wants to. Redeployment makes it so that the latest employees to have been hired are the first ones to be let go. Imagine a Pez dispenser full of pink slips, arranged so that the ones belonging to the most recent employees are at the top, and the ones belonging to the most senior are at the bottom.

The mechanisms by which this process works are unbelievably complicated and bureaucratic, but basically, whenever an employee’s job is deleted, he or she can elect to take another job in the organization.

So, say employee number one loses his or her job. If there’s a vacant position that’s pretty similar to employee number one’s existing job, he or she can take it. But if there’s no vacant position, then employee number one can take over the job of another employee with less seniority, whom we’ll call employee number two.

Employee number two loses their job to employee number one, but employee number two is then entitled to redeployment as well. And so is employee number three, and so is employee number four, and so on. It ends only when everyone is settled, and the least senior workers have been let go. There are wage protections in place that make it hard for management to use this as a way of shuffling senior staff into low-paying positions. An exception to this way of doing things happens in cases where senior employees leave of their own volition. The City and Toronto Public Library have both used cash incentives to make that happen in recent months, as part of so-called “voluntary separation programs.”

There are restrictions on who can be redeployed into what job (employees have to have the ability to perform their new work, for example). Even so, the City has claimed that the process takes too long, and is costly. One of the concessions City negotiators won from Local 416 was a streamlined redeployment process that the City says will reduce the amount of time it takes to find a new position for an employee from 320 days to 80. It’s a good bet that City negotiators are seeking similar deals from the other unions.

We won’t know how job security for Locals 79 and 4948 will fare until negotiations are done. But given the Ford administration’s hard line on spending, it’s likely that both unions will need to make concessions.

CORRECTION: 12:50 PM This post originally implied that CUPE Local 4948 negotiates with the City. In fact, they bargain with the Toronto Public Library Board. The text has been amended accordingly.

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