Toronto’s “garbage strike” elicits public outrage and labour disunity


    The city of Toronto has been caught up in a labour dispute since June 22—when 24,000 municipal workers from two local branches of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) went on strike. After six months of negotiations, paramedics, social service workers, and various other municipal employees walked off the job to reject city officials’ demands for concessions. Benefits for older workers and sick pay policy have been major sticking points during this collective bargaining.

    The most contentious aspect of this strike, however, has revolved around Toronto’s waste collection services. When sanitation workers joined the municipal strike, many residents had to adjust to interim measures. In Toronto, the sidewalk waste bins have been taped shut, and the usual curbside services have been replaced with temporary dump sites, which are scattered across the city. It would be an enormous understatement to say that this “garbage strike” has overshadowed the wider economic issues in and around the municipal labour dispute. Some consider the waste work stoppage, alone, an outrageous disaster.

    Toronto's mayor on the cover of <i>Maclean's</i> magazine
    Toronto's mayor on the cover of Maclean's magazine

    The coverage in Maclean’s magazine is one notable response to this “garbage strike.” As a widely-circulated Canadian publication, Maclean’s is seen on store shelves across the country. The tabloid-style mockery on the cover is a departure for this publication, which usually maintains an air of seriousness.

    Unfortunately, such coverage is consistent with various other shrill and counter-productive responses conveyed by Canadian media outlets. From the beginning, a barrage of hostility and panic has been flung at the sanitation workers and the city government. On the third day of the strike, Toronto Star columnist Royson James reported that “talk radio was abuzz with outraged citizens, in full fume over having to wait an hour to dump waste at city transfer stations. Electronic news outlets feed the beast with provocative web polls. And newspaper websites stoke the fires.”

    News of Toronto’s labour tensions has even found its way into American media. According to The Canadian Press, the mayor of Toronto “went on CNN last week to urge American tourists to visit the city after an article in the San Francisco Chronicle made Toronto seem like a hazardous vacation destination,” actually rating it worse than notoriously troubled regions like Honduras, Mexico, North Africa and Thailand. As one Toronto writer put it, “Apparently, vacationers being falsely imprisoned, an outbreak of bubonic plague, a surge in the number of cases of dengue fever and the overthrow of a government and all the upheaval that entails, pales in comparison to a strike by municipal workers in the City of Toronto.”

    Meanwhile, Windsor, Ontario waste collectors have been on strike for nearly three and a half months—without remotely as much outside press attention. Toronto and Ottawa tend to be principal focal points of the mainstream media in Canada and elsewhere (whereas Windsor—an industrial hub—usually is only discussed when manufacturing issues are brought up). All this overheated rhetoric is quite typical and, in fact, reminiscent of recent belligerent press that called a Toronto bike lane proposal a “war on cars,” and pro-Tamil street rallies a form of “terrorism”.

    At a counter-demonstration in mid-July
    At a counter-demonstration in mid-July

    Talk like this tends to fan the flames of counter-protests, which in the case of the current strike, have resulted in anti-strike rallies to dismiss the basic demands of the workers. Waste also has been left outside of City Hall—to convey discontent, evidently. Littering and illegal dumping have become common over the past few weeks, as some Torontonians have refused to accept interim waste disposal measures noted above. Conversely, some have volunteered for a waste pick-up project in order to, in their words, “compliment efforts already being undertaken by residents in Toronto to keep the city beautiful.” Others have rallied to oppose the temporary dumping sites set up by city officials—often in public parks or arenas. These spaces are becoming breeding grounds for unwanted critters. In turn, the municipal government has been dousing these sites with pesticides and rat poison—thereby provoking concerns about toxic chemicals spreading across surrounding areas (through ground water, for example).

    A Parks Are Not Dumps! information picket in late June
    A Parks Are Not Dumps! information picket in late June

    Yet, from an ecological standpoint, there is an upside to these in-city dump sites: the suspension of the usual waste collection operations in Toronto has created inadvertent educational benefits, as residents have had an opportunity to learn more about the sheer volume of ‘garbage’ that they have been throwing away each week. The visibility and odour of this waste are educational experiences that intangible and obscure statistics could not provide. During this strike, Torontonians also have been reminded about sanitation workers, who are normally about as invisible as the contents of the waste bins and landfill space. The more vocal residents generally have not welcomed these reminders; instead, many people in Toronto have been conflating these sanitation workers with the refuse which they usually carry away. In one stock argument, waste collectors are berated because they don’t require the post-secondary schooling which is common in some other professions. I happen to think that waste collectors should be compensated for the indignity of handling materials that others throw away; but such an argument basically hasn’t made it into the discourse of the labour dispute.

    These points should become part of a much wider discussion about labour issues and city services. The mainstream press has not been an avenue for such discussions, however—as was the case during a 2008-2009 CUPE strike at a university in Toronto.

    As Red Jenny, a progressive Toronto-based blogger, has indicated, labour solidarity and informed discussion have been sorely lacking since the beginning of the current strike. Amidst her other observations, Jenny notes that “cognitive dissonance abounds,” resulting in claims that “Garbage collectors shouldn’t be given the same increases as police officers because garbage collectors aren’t as important. But me oh my, it’s been TWO days without garbage collection and already they are screaming to have someone take away their refuse.”

    To be fair, CUPE organizers have not made much effort to explain their position through press channels. Although journalists and editors wouldn’t be very receptive to their point of view, labour organizers at least would be assured of sound bites during an ongoing strike. In tandem with on-the-ground communications with passers-by, CUPE’s web site also could complement such a media campaign, by presenting the organizers’ point of view to journalists and the general public. Further commitment to such communications would be justifiable for CUPE, and for other labour organizers—if not an actual labour movement.

    Cultivating more favourable press would encourage city officials to accept CUPE demands—whereas such concessions will be met with even more backlash if labour organizers continue to have so little involvement in media coverage about their strike. This bad press will discourage and hinder other labour organizing as well (more than this caustic journalism would provoke any such efforts); hence, workers outside of CUPE owe it to each other to vocally support the municipal employees who are on strike. In other words: basic labour movement solidarity and education is in order here.

    Labour organizers clearly have their work cut out for them in Toronto. Like other workers there, the CUPE members and organizers are in need of far more outside support.

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