Toronto mayor’s garbage privatization plan kicked to the curb

416-hoorayBy Brad Walchuk

The lines between fact and fiction have become increasingly blurred in recent weeks thanks to the newly elected Trump administration in the United States. Outright lies are being cast as “alternative facts,” while evidence based arguments are dismissed as fake news.

In such a climate, even north of the border, it’s something of a victory when evidence-based fact prevails, especially when that evidence-based fact is used by a public sector union to push back against the privatization agenda right wing politicians. And last week in Toronto, that is just what happened as CUPE Local 416 scored a major victory against Toronto mayor John Tory, whose push to privatize solid waste pickup east of Yonge Street was soundly rejected by Toronto City Council.

Tory’s desire to privatize solid waste collection east of Yonge Street was a component of his 2014 mayoral platform, and would have followed in the footsteps of Rob Ford, his predecessor, who successfully privatized solid waste collection west of Yonge Street in 2012 (solid waste collection was previously privatized in Etobicoke in 1995). Of course, doing so would have run contrary to not only to logic, but also to fact. Data on waste collection repeatedly says the same thing: that privatization offered no immediate benefit to the city, and had the potential to cost even more in the long run. For example, city staff noted that based on 2014 data, in Etobicoke, where waste collection was privatized in 1995, the cost to the city was $9.4 million to service 66,057 households, averaging $142 per household, while in Scarborough, with 121,440 homes, it cost the city $15.4 million for publicly run collection, averaging $126.89 per household.

Comparative and widely accessible data from Ottawa, which privatized much of its waste pickup in 1999, showed that public collection was cheaper (and led to better service/less complaints by residents), which led to further contracting-in and collection by public employees in other areas in the city in 2012.

The accounting firm Ernst and Young was concerned about future cost increases to the city, and highlighted a major concern with privatization: that even if it was cheaper in the short-term (and, to be sure, it wasn’t in this case), it is neither sustainable nor effective in the long-term. For example, they noted that “future contract prices are not guaranteed and the reduction of in-house service could negatively impact the City’s ability to keep prices competitive” adding that “it is not uncommon for private sector companies to put in low ball bids in an attempt to gain market share.” This highlights one of the pitfalls of privatization, which may seem logical at first glance, especially if a contractor puts in a low-ball offer. In Hamilton, for example, which partially privatized its solid waste collection in 2005, costs for privately collected garbage have steadily increased. The Globe and Mail noted that between 2004 and 2009, the private contractor’s costs increased by 58.4% (11.7% per year), while increases for publicly collected waste were just 32.5% (6.5%/yr).

Once a service has been taken fully out of public control and the city losses its capability to perform that service, the private company can increase rates and the city, having lost the ability to perform the work, has no choice but to accept the increasing rates.

Despite these facts, Tory seemed content to push forward his privatization agenda and turn over solid waste to market forces in a purely ideological exercise. CUPE Local 416, who represents over 500 members whose jobs would have been lost, rightly took up the fight against privatization, and won!

The local launched the highly effective and fact-based “Kicked to the Curb” campaign. While the campaign did, as the name suggests, highlight the job loss for the roughly 500 members who would have been thrown out of work, the local also drew upon the city’s own data (and other studies) to highlight the adverse cost implications on the city, as well as the loss of control that the city would have over garbage collectors.

As such, the campaign wasn’t simply about jobs, it was also an effective campaign against a destructive public policy. By focusing not only on their own members, but on the value of broader public services (and on the pocket books of residents), Local 416 defeated Tory’s immediate attempts to privatize. The campaign also succeed in advancing the discourse around the pitfalls of privatization and the value of both in-house public service and good jobs.

The campaign itself was multi-faceted, and included a major media blitz (both social media and traditional media), an independently commissioned poll of Toronto residents, door-to-door campaigning and a petition that gathered thousands of signatures, a union presence at public events and council meetings, and lobbying of city councillors.

On Tuesday January 31, and faced with certain defeat, John Tory introduced a surprise motion – which passed 40 to 4 – to refer options for waste collection back to city staff, effectively halting the privatization that would have otherwise occurred, thus keeping solid waste collection in house for the time being.

While the issue may re-surface again, the facts about the value of public services are now even more widely known, thanks to the effectiveness of the “Kicked to the Curb” campaign and should serve as an important reminder to voters and councillors alike the perils of privatization and the value of in-house services.

This campaign provides many lessons. For unions, it shows that privatization can be stopped. For citizens, it shows that privatization is not all that it is made out to be, reduces accountability and control, and costs more. Perhaps most importantly, for politicians, it shows that ideologically driven agendas to privatize public services will be defeated, and that the false hope it promises will be exposed.

While fact and reality have been under attack in recent weeks, this campaign shows well researched, comparative, fact-based data provides an effective counterpoint to privatization and that the public (and politicians) can be persuaded when presented with the facts.

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