Mayor Rob Ford’s push to reduce costs by privatizing more city services suffered a major setback after his opponents yanked control over future outsourcing into the political arena of city council.
The 29 to 12 loss Wednesday was both the latest evidence of Mr. Ford’s evaporating hold on council and the culmination of a three-month campaign by staunch left-wing councillors to seize control of future contracts for cleaning services at municipal buildings, including daycares and the St. Lawrence Centre for the performing arts.
The decision also means Toronto will have a tougher time saving money by outsourcing janitorial work that is currently performed by unionized cleaners earning as much as $24.37 an hour, plus benefits.
Those savings could be substantial: One 2011 comparison by Toronto police found it was 47-per-cent cheaper for a private company – rather than city workers – to clean one station.
“It’s disappointing,” Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, said. “If council blocks these contracts … god bless the cleaners, but just my personal opinion, we shouldn’t be paying cleaners $22 an hour.”
The majority of council disagreed, rallying around a centrist colleague whose experiences as a teenager newly arrived in Canada from Portugal put a sympathetic face on the left’s efforts.
“I know this industry,” said Councillor Ana Bailao, choking back tears as she described cleaning offices with her mother, a seamstress who worked a second job to make ends meet. “These are the most vulnerable people in this city. It’s not only about money, it’s making sure that the companies we are dealing with respect their employees.”
Contracting out was a major campaign pledge for Mr. Ford, who was silent and absent for large chunks of Wednesday’s debate, leaving his deputy to tell reporters that only the mayor has the “political will” to thwart organized labour’s influence at city hall.
“My advice to the taxpayer would be don’t send us any more activists, don’t send us any more unionists, don’t send us any more cyclists,” Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said. “Send us some people down here with good common sense who just want to manage the city’s affairs. That’s what’s needed.”
The subject of Wednesday’s heated debate at first seemed dry and procedural.
Ms. Bailao moved a long motion – a motion actually authored by veteran union supporter Councillor Pam McConnell – that sent future cleaning contracts to the government management committee. The motion gave the same committee control over any extensions to a recently awarded one-year private contract for the cleaning of police stations.
But anything that goes before a council committee eventually lands at full council.
So whereas contracts worth less than $20-million are usually approved by either the director of purchasing or a bid committee of bureaucrats, cleaning contracts in the pipeline will now be voted on by a council whose majority has turned decidedly against the Ford agenda.
Council’s majority could use the same manoeuvre to slow or stop the city manager’s plans to privatize other services, such as call centres and accounting, part of the recommendations of last year’s controversial core services review.
“This mayor has set out – and his brother said clearly – to privatize and contract out everything that is not nailed down. That is not the predominant view of this council and today that message came out,” said Councillor Janet Davis, one of the architects of a campaign for well-paying jobs who spent months working back channels at city hall and attracting support from the likes of urban guru Richard Florida.
The move comes the same week that city council endorsed a new deal with its part-time recreation workers, the final piece of high-stakes contract talks and a major victory for the mayor. Union leader Tim Maguire, who represents the city’s inside workers, came to city council Wednesday afternoon to witness the debate first hand. “What I saw here today was a ray of hope,” he said after the final vote.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, an ally of the mayor, warned that the change would “essentially politicize” the bid process, something the city worked hard to avoid after the MFP computer-leasing scandal.