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Market Squared: Something's rotten among the garbage workers

Guelph's outside workers are gearing up for a fight over the 'P' word: privatization.

In the modern work culture that includes contract jobs, fewer benefits, and internships that promise neither a salary or permanent employment, the idea of Labour Day can seem, in a word, quaint. Sometimes labour needs a cause to make Labour Day worthwhile. 

That’s what happened at this year’s Labour Day picnic at Riverside Park. Between the local music acts, the hot dogs, and the face painting for the kids, there was a moment of serious politics. The outside workers of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 241 are worried that this might have been their last Labour Day as City of Guelph employees. 

At a special meeting of city council on September 18, the results of the first of three pilot service reviews will come back to council presumably with some recommendations about the Solid Waste department. (The agenda and reports for this meeting were unavailable at the time of the writing of this column.)

CUPE is mainly concerned that the report will (politely) suggest privatizing all or part of Solid Waste Resources. Of course, the concern isn’t that the suggestion to privatized might be made, it’s that the majority of council might take the consultants up on it. 

Let’s get in the wayback machine for a minute and consider six years ago. It was November 2011, and a young Councillor Cam Guthrie suggested that the City of Guelph should look at outsourcing its garbage collection. All the cool kids were doing it, like the late Rob Ford who was Mayor of Toronto at the time. 

Obviously the idea was not well received, and the union president of the time pointed to a 2005 report that said that private garbage collection would cost $30 more per tonne than the city-run service. 

That president, Brad Kelloway, also threw a little shade Guthrie’s way telling the Guelph Mercury, “Some councillors seem to think there are employees who stand around and do nothing, but the truth is staff and the union are always looking at ways to do things more efficiently.”

Then, an internal audit in 2015 said that the City’s waste collection is “being conducted effectively and efficiently.” Internal auditor Ruvani Shaubel offered 16 suggestions for further improvements to the service, but conspicuous by its absence was any mention of turning over the keys of the garbage trucks to a private entity. 

Coming up in conversation three times in 10 years, it’s easy to see why organized labour might have something of a case to make that the Solid Waste workers toil under the Damoclesian sword of privatization. Any minute, the bean counters at City Hall will come up to them and say, “Thank you for your service, but we’ve found someone cheaper.”

"We're very curious as to why that service review is happening at this point, and to us, it would appear it's pretty political," Janice Folk-Dawnson of the Guelph and District Labour Council told me at the park on Labour Day. 

There’s never seemed to be any love loss between Mayor Guthrie and Folk-Dawson, who’s also the president of the CUPE local 1334 at the University of Guelph, but Folk-Dawson said to me she smells an agenda here. "It seems to us that we have a mayor that's looking at privatizing most of the services, and when he gets a report from one group that doesn't go in his favour, he'll go to another group.”

As that aforementioned audit in 2015 was beginning, the mayor was asked by the Mercury if it could lead to private collection, and Guthrie said it could, be he also issued a caveat. "I will be the first to hit the no button on this if it doesn't make sense,” he said. “We’ll never know if we don't do the audit. We owe it to the community to find out.”

Indeed, Guthrie has never flat-out said that he’s pursuing a policy of privatization in his mayoralty. While Ford in Toronto campaigned on private garbage collection, Guthrie’s statements in the press only ever seem to come down to him being open to a business case for privatization being done. One can make a business case for privatizing a service, but not every business case involves privatizing. 

Still, the odious aroma of politics has stunk up this service review pilot project; two of the three services chosen, Solid Waste Resources and Guelph Transit, are much beleaguered in terms of the money spent, the money lost, and the services gained in return. The third department, boulevard maintenance, seems like the sugar pill used in control groups for drug trials. Either that, or there’s some bad stuff behind those flower beds no one knows about…

The logical assessment of the situation is that because these departments are beleaguered, then they’re as good a place to start as any if the intention is to review all city departments for efficiencies. If that’s the case, that is to say if there’s no hidden agenda, then Guelph’s workers shouldn’t have too much to worry about.

Why? On Monday, at the first meeting of the fall, Committee-Of-The-Whole once again raked out the perpetual negative variance of Solid Waste. "Poor budget planning and execution,” was a phrase used in a report last year to explain the situation, and then there was that fire in the spring of 2016 that’s still in the process of being investigated. 

Now fires at recycling plants seems to happen with some regularity. Cambridge’s facility had a fire in 2015, and plants in both Toronto and Barrie had a fire in May and August of this year respectively. As for the budgeting snafus, that’s not the less-than-fine work of the outside workers of CUPE 241 causing a gulf of hundreds of thousands of dollars year-after-year between how much is budgeted, and how much is spent, is it? 

Through it all, city staff has maintained that these balance sheet issues can be “corrected”, as General Manager of Environmental Services Peter Busatto told committee last November. Two staff members were laid off last year as part of the attempt to “correct” things, which may be another warning sign to outside workers that their job security is very insecure. 

Having said that though, Guelph diverts nearly 70 per cent of its waste from landfills, and the 2015 audit  said that staff members “work efficiently, have positive morale and are well managed.” So staff are doing their job, doing it well, and are happy? Maybe we don’t want to pop this balloon, if indeed the service review wants to pop it.