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Neoliberal Urbanism and the Assault Against Public Services and Workers in Toronto, 2006-2011

Carlo Fanelli


This article explores demands for concessions from public sector workers and new pressures to privatize public services at the city of Toronto. Situated in historical perspective, I argue that through the 2009 round of bargaining between the City of Toronto and its civic workers, the City sought to shift the burden of recession onto unionized workers by positing a trade-off between wage restraint and the protection of public services. Rather than retreat from the neoliberal project or present an alternative developmental path in the face of declining revenues, the ‘Third Way progressivism’ of the Miller regime employed the rationale that the recession demanded austerity. In the absence of an alternative political program and engaged membership, Local 79 was unable to counter the drumbeats of austerity and retrenchment. In the subsequent election a new conservative mayor and council vowed to radically restructure the city along increased competitive pressures, with efforts to lower the wages and benefits of its public sector workforce and privatize city services and assets. Indeed, since the 2009 civic workers’ strike, the Ford administration has implemented a number of reforms which has made work more precarious, reduced access to city services and intensified fiscal pressures. In the absence of a collective capacity to resist such attacks, trade union and community activists in Toronto have much to be concerned about.

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  • 1 Local 79 has a membership of 18,000, although various contingent, seasonal and part-time staff push (...)

1In this article I explore how the Great Recession has led to new rounds of attacks against public sector workers and pressures to privatize public services at the municipal sphere. Situated in historical perspective, I argue that through the 2009 round of bargaining between the City of Toronto and its civic workers, the City sought to shift the burden of recession onto workers by positing a zero-sum trade-off between wage restraint and the protection of public services. Given the location of Toronto as the strategic centre of financial capital in Canada and home to Canada’s largest municipal union, Local 79, the 2009 round of bargaining served as a measuring stick or blueprint of sorts as the state sought to privatize new spaces for accumulation1.

2Rather than retreat from the neoliberal project or present an alternative developmental path in the face of declining revenues, the ‘Third Way progressivism’ of the Miller regime attempted to extract concessions from workers using the rationale that the recession demanded austerity. While some of Local 79s weaknesses stem from organizational failings, this problematic is related to larger questions pertaining to the significant gulf between the union executive and its rank and file members. What’s more, the union failed to come to terms with the limits of militancy alone which, in the absence of an oppositional political program, was incapable of countering the drumbeats of austerity and neoliberalism.

3In the subsequent mayoral election these shortcomings contributed to the election of a conservative mayor and council intent on radically restructuring the city along increased competitive pressures, with efforts to lower the wages and benefits of its public sector workforce and privatize city services and assets. This restructuring reproduced and intensified patterns of classed, racialized and gendered labour market segmentation and inequality. Indeed, since the 2009 civic workers’ strike, the Ford administration has implemented a number of regressive reforms that has made work more precarious, reduced access to city services and intensified fiscal pressures. In the absence of a collective capacity to resist such attacks, trade union and community activists in Toronto have much to be concerned about.


4My analysis is informed by my experiences as a part-time worker with the city of Toronto for more than a decade, as well as a strike participant in 2000, 2002 and as a picket captain through the 2009 strike. In this sense, my methodology is rooted in participant observation as a scholar and trade union activist. I aim to overcome the distance of intellectual work by supplementing textual evidence, union documents and media reports with a first person account of trade union struggles. One of the advantages of being a participant observer is that participants and trade unionists generally behaved as they ordinarily would, which meant that my research was open to new insights as the research questions were not fixed in advance. Insights are informed by semi-structured interviews, picket line conversations and trade union meetings. This allowed me to carefully detail the social interactions and methods used by workers as they struggled to understand and respond to demands for concessions. In utilizing such a method of research I was able to collect and interpret data, which would otherwise be unavailable to non-Local 79 members or missed using other methods. Where applicable, I also draw on existing scholarly works, newspapers, magazines, academic and labour studies in order to supplement the qualitative data I have collected.

Neoliberalism in Theory and Practice

5As both political philosophy and social framework, neoliberalism emerged in the context of the capitalist economic downturn that began in the early-1970s. This downturn led to wide-ranging transformations in macro-economic and political structures as well as the social organization of work and labour. From the very beginning neoliberalism was an offspring of the Great Depression (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009). Having developed in tandem with but in the shadows of Keynesianism, neoliberalism’s most vocal expositors took a long-established constitutive core of liberal ideas and refashioned them in new form. While neoliberalism draws significant intellectual inspiration from its classical predecessors, it has had a “decidedly nonlinear evolution” (Peck 2008: 3). Many of these transformative intellectual and policy changes have been incremental, yet systematically transformative.

6Chief proponents of neoliberalism remained largely marginalized through the first half of the 20th century. With the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, however, they gradually emerged from the margins as Keynesian policy prescriptions failed to kick-start the economic slump. Neoliberalism, as Harvey (2005) has argued, can be understood as a political project seeking to restore and reconstitute class power through the (re)establishment of the conditions conducive to capitalist accumulation. As part of this process, leading expositors of neoliberalism increasingly gained prominence in well-funded think-tanks, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., in addition to playing an increasingly larger role in academic affairs.

7In Canada, social scientists trained in neoliberal economics and political theory at U.S. and British universities gained influence in the development of domestic curricula and hiring practices (Mathews and Steele 1969, Cormier 2004). The analogous growth in neoliberal think-tanks such as the Business Council on National Issues (now Canadian Council of Chief Executives), the Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and the C.D. Howe Institute reshaped the contours of public policy advocacy (Langille 1987, Abelson and Carberry 1998, Carrol and Shaw 2001). On the whole, reconstructing common sense was part and parcel of the neoliberal project. This “permanent campaign of persuasion” (Kozolanka 2007: 7), particularly among the active intelligentsia, sought to publically legitimate neoliberal policies in both a theoretical and practical sense.

8From the 1980s, collective efforts on the part of the capitalist class sought to refashion the institutional configurations and social provisions of the Keynesian era (Panitch and Swartz 2003). Neoliberalism emerged in this context as a means to discipline the growing power of labour militancy and enhance capitalist profitability. As more than thirty years of unprecedented economic growth came to a standstill, social expenditures increasingly came under attack by neoliberal-inspired politicians, economists and intellectuals as excessive and unaffordable. Workers were increasingly chastised by politicians, business sectors and media pundits as overpaid and underworked having allegedly become idle and unproductive (Workman 2009).

9At the same time, finance came to play an increasingly larger role in the allocation of overall economic activity. As Albo et al. (2010: 28) have argued:

10What is called financialization involves not only credit markets playing a more pivotal role in the capitalist economy, but also economic development that is increasingly ‘finance-led’ in terms of the corporate decisions that determine investment flows and even the decisions individuals and households make in meeting their needs. Finance’s enhanced place in the political alliances of capital and, in the power structures of the state, has gained it a more determining role in the shaping of government policy”.

11In this sense, the rise of finance was used to fight inflation, augment the wealth and income of creditors, internationalize capital, and use the growing indebtedness of the state to launch a full-out assault against social provisions and public sector unions under the auspices of economic crisis. Although neoliberalism was from the very beginning a project intent on restoring ruling class power, it went beyond this thoroughly integrating and subordinating the working classes via mortgages, pensions and other forms of debt (Dumenil and Levy 2001). In this sense, “financialization gives rise to such financial volatility that crises actually become one of the developmental features of neoliberalism, and this reinforces rather than undermines the central position of financial interests in capitalist power structures” (Albo et al. 2010: 35). Concomitant with the growing power of finance, and the capitalist classes more broadly, has been the neoliberal restructuring of the state.

12Neoliberal proponents maintained that states ought to be limited to securing the institutional preconditions for a competitive market and, once established, remolding state practices in order to ensure market rule. As such, neoliberals proposed that states should be limited to the protection of private property, security, national defense and the legal enforcement of contracts. The Austrian and Chicago Schools of economics, for example, argued that government intervention into the economy obstructed the invisible hand of the free market (Milonakis and Fine 2009). Proponents asserted that markets inherently tended toward general equilibrium, thus economic crises were the result of government policies, intervention or ‘market rigidities’, rather than indicative of market failure. For neoliberals, government efforts to secure basic social entitlements such as healthcare, education, pensions, unemployment insurance, welfare, workers compensation, maternity/paternity leave and so forth, are understood as intruding on individual rights and freedoms (Friedman 1962, 1980, Steiner 2009, Van Horn and Mirowski 2009).

13As social paradigm and ideology, the market is envisaged as ensuring that factors of production are paid what they are worth, supposedly removing the need for social infrastructure, legal and juridical protections and unions which are viewed negatively as market impediments. As a policy framework, central to neoliberalism has been the abandonment of full employment, national economic development strategies and a shift from collective to individual consumption. This includes limiting wage increases to below increases in productivity, the systemic use of state power to impose market-imperatives and create new spaces for accumulation, monetarist shock therapy, regressive tax reform, the erosion and dismantlement of social services, inflation-targeting by the central bank, an export-led growth strategy, unlimited foreign direct investment and trade liberalization. Moreover, this has entailed a movement away from government-led social programs and a (re)turn towards an increasing reliance on private charity through faith-based interventions, philanthropy and volunteerism (Streek and Thelan 2005, Peck 2010).

14The ongoing transformation of inherited regulatory frameworks and multi-level governance arrangements have reshaped the contours of institutional landscapes and rewoven interconnections among them. The subsequent tendency has been to limit the scope through which national discretion can be exercised through socio-spatial reconfigurations along market lines. Neoliberalism, then, can be understood as a fluid, ongoing process rich in change that has entailed the rescaling of political administration through multi-level governance arrangements via shifting territorialities in order to attract capital investment (Brenner and Theodore 2002). This has entailed the concurrent introduction of new state supports and mechanisms that facilitate private accumulation, in addition to the retrenchment of social protections provided by the state, and the simultaneous devolution and upwards transference of regulatory responsibilities, most often without matching fiscal supports or regulatory decision-making powers to other tiers of governments (McBride and Shields 1997, Streek and Thelan 2005). This also prevents progressive governments from using their regulatory authority to erect trade barriers against the goods and services from other political units, thereby entrenching capital mobility and avoiding any centralization or harmonization of market-inhibiting policies (Harmes 2006). All this can be understood as the competitive re-regulation of neoliberalism within and between multi-level governments.

Remaking Labour Market Policy

15In the context of stagnant economic growth through the 1980s, employers increasingly turned toward escalating the pace of work which has led to a growing precariousness of job tenure as well as heightened stress and work-life conflicts owing to long hours of work and lack of control over working time (Pupo and Thomas 2010). In seeking to erode the Standard Employment Relationship (SER), these initiatives have further exposed workers and public services to the pressures of ‘market forces’. So-called “flexible” labour market arrangements have increased the use of shift work, short-term contracts, workplace speed-ups, evening and overnight work, part-time labour, weekend work, rotating and split shifts, variable schedules, as well as casual and seasonal employment. With the erosion of the SER has exploded the use of atypical, non-standard, contingent and casualized forms of work and labour (Vosko 2006). Just as class-based inequities are intensified under a neoliberal workplace framework, so too are race- and gender-based inequities.

16Feminist political economists, for example, have identified gendered dimensions of neoliberal policies which often go unaccounted for in gender-blind analyses. For example, neoliberal policies have promoted the privatization of social services and a lack of support for child care which, in the context of persisting gendered divisions of labour, have increased the demands on women’s responsibilities in the home (Bezanson and Luxton 2006, Braedley and Luxton, 2010). Neoliberal policies have also reproduced patterns of gendered labour market inequality through transformations in income security policies that are premised on the male income earner model of paid employment. This dynamic serves to further individuate responsibility by ignoring how complex socio-historical structural relations constrain the space for choice and subjectivity. All in all, the intrusion of neoliberal market mechanisms into public services and industries represents a frontier opportunity to harmonize downwards the quality, pay and working conditions of the public-sector with the private sphere.

17As longstanding patterns of labour market inequities are exacerbated, patterns of racialized labour market inequality are intensified as neoliberal policies seek to weaken labour market protections and income security protections. Racialized groups are disproportionately represented in low-income occupations across the labour market and these employment patterns are reflected in overall employment earnings for racialized groups that are below the Canadian average. Further, new immigrants are more than twice as likely as those Canadian-born to experience chronic low incomes (Galabuzi 2006). These employment and earning differentials have contributed to a broader racialization of poverty, where racialized groups are more likely than non-racialized groups to have overall earnings below the poverty line (Creese 2007). As public policy becomes increasingly neoliberalized, ethno-racial and gender-based inequalities, rooted in fundamentally antagonistic class relations, are further intensified. As social services become gradually more market-dependant, the burden increasingly falls on historically racialized groups, women and immigrants to occupy the most precarious labour market positions. The notion that unemployment is more a result of individual failure as opposed to market failure has come to dominate public policy debates as the principle of private responsibility over collective responsibility has shifted the boundaries of work and life. With the dissolution of the SER, workers are envisaged as individual entrepreneurs. Central to the new reality of work in the twenty-first century, then, are increasingly insecure labour market arrangements, low-pay, the absence of benefits or entitlements and growing work-life imbalances. As I argue below, changes to public sector employment and administration aim to consolidate the qualitative and quantitative degradation of work and labour prevalent in the private sector.

Urban Neoliberalism and Public Restructuring in Toronto

18In the case of Toronto, while the three decades following World War II emphasized the retooling of war time industries and large infrastructure investments, the period since then can be understood as a continuous process of internationalizing the local economy (Lemon 1985, Todd 1998). As a result of both extra-local and local pressures, economic development in the city moved away from manufacturing and goods-producing sectors toward a neoliberal model premised on export services related to finance, insurance and real estate. The effort to create a different kind of local state was part of a broader strategy of enhancing competitiveness within the city and vis-à-vis other territories. While taxation, financial transfers and intergovernmental jurisdictions have been realigned, Toronto’s labour market has also undergone significant demographic shifts. In the 1960s manufacturing accounted for roughly 30 percent of the city’s labour force but by 2007 this had fallen to less than 15 percent. And since 2002, nearly one in five jobs in manufacturing has disappeared. In Toronto, this process of industrial reorganization is related to capital flight to newly emerging economic regions with cheaper pools of labour, resources and environmental protections, as well as low-tax jurisdictions, technological displacement and labour intensification. In its place has arisen one of Toronto’s largest segments of the labour force: employment related to the burgeoning financial, insurance and real estate industries (TD Bank 2007). Thus current efforts to restructure the city along market lines and competitive pressures must bear this history in mind.

  • 2 Formerly part of a two-tier municipality, six cities and seven governments were merged through an a (...)

19It is important to recall that since the 1980s both the federal and provincial spheres of government – when faced with their own budgetary dilemmas – sought to “solve” their revenue shortfalls by eliminating programs, seeking concessions from its workforce and downloading these responsibilities onto other tiers of government without any matching fiscal supports (McBride and Shields 1997). From Prime Ministers Mulroney and Chrétien who drastically reduced transfer payments to the provinces to Ontario Premiers Rae and Harris who froze public sector wages and unilaterally amalgamated cities devolving funding responsibilities, municipal governments have long been subject to ‘top down’ neoliberalism (Friskin 1993, Kipfer and Petrunia 2009, Fanelli forthcoming). In the run-up to amalgamation, commentators increasingly drew attention to two divergent paths to development best exemplified by the neighbouring cities of Toronto and North York2.

20While the former sought to deal with growth pressures by increasing density requirements, expanding public transit and using the property tax base to fund a range of social services, the latter suburban version was an example of fiscal conservatism, the dominance of the automobile and private services provisioning. Increasingly, the metro Toronto model came to represent the old, decaying order while the North York version represented the future. The Conservative provincial government tied its neoliberal agenda to a reengineering of the local state, but refused to transfer administrative and fiscal powers thereby intensifying inter-city competition between Toronto and surrounding municipalities. Moreover, because Toronto was envisaged as the strategic terrain through which Ontario and Canada more broadly was linked to the global economy, Premier Harris’ reforms sought to give the local government and businesses the “flexibility” to promote Toronto as a competitive “global city” (Kipfer and Keil 2002, Keil 1998, 2002). This was done against the backdrop of significant union and community resistance against amalgamation, although by the late-1990s opposition had largely been defeated, fragmented or demobilized (Boudreau 2000, Boudreau et al. 2009). The 1998 mayoral election pitted these two versions against each other with the North York model emerging as the victor. For Todd (1998), the institutional and administrative redesign of local government, embodied by the electoral victory of Mayor Lastman, represented the victory of a neoliberalized urban political regime more than a quarter-century in the making.

21As a “stand in” for the provincial Conservatives (Keil 1998), Mayor Lastman promised to freeze property taxes for ten years, harmonize downwards civic workers’ pay and privatize city services. However, just one year into amalgamation the city found itself short of $164 million in tax revenues as a result of provincial downloading. In what was to become a recurring saga, rather than address the structural deficit at the municipal base the provincial government provided one-time fiscal injections and short-term loans. Keil (1998) has characterized the amalgamation of the city of Toronto as an ill-conceived “solution” by the provincial Conservatives to strengthen their suburban base at the expense of the urban core. Lastman’s policies immediately made themselves felt on municipal workers who sought to challenge the authoritarian neoliberalism of the Lastman regime.

22In an attempt to remake the local state in the image of its provincial Conservative counterpart, Mayor Mel Lastman and council attempted to deal with Toronto's fiscal challenges by implementing its own set of 'slash and burn' policies. These revolved around extracting concessions from workers and freeing-up new spaces for profit-making opportunities. The result was a strike by 18,000 CUPE Local 79 workers over the City’s attempts to lower wages, weaken job security provisions, contract-out and privatize services. The strike was the first by Local 79 in the newly amalgamated city of Toronto. Ten days later the union and the City had agreed to send issues related to wage harmonization across the workforce to binding arbitration, while most of the other concessions were taken off the table. In short, the 2000 strike ended in a stalemate.

23In 2002, CUPE Local 79 once again struck over renewed efforts to contract-out and remove job security protections. However this time the 18,000 member Local 79 was joined by the 5,500 member CUPE Local 416. Criticizing so-called “jobs for life”, Mayor Mel Lastman sought to outsource waste collection, increase seasonal and temporary employment, weaken employment security, wages, health benefits and pensions, and selloff city assets. However, little more than two-weeks into the strike, with over one million visitors expected for World Youth Day and the Pope, Conservative Premier Ernie Eves made use of the coercive act of legislation forcing CUPE back-to-work. In seeking to depoliticize the strike, the provincial Conservatives with the support of Lastman and council removed the right to strike using the rationale that the economic benefits of World Youth Day and the Pope’s visit outweighed workers’ rights. In brief, the provincial conciliator assigned to the labour dispute ruled in a way that limited rollbacks of job security and workplace provisions. The issue of wage harmonization across the city’s districts, however, remained unresolved as the conciliator requested more time.

24After the 2002 strike by city of Toronto workers was ended with forced legislation, activist union members raised the need to be prepared well in advance of a possible strike in terms of planning, coordination and mobilization and to trying to develop new strategies to garner public support. This included suggestions for political and workplace education in order to mobilize more and new members, efforts to create tighter bonds with community organizations as well as initiatives to build rank and file confidence in the membership. As the strike played out and afterward, some members were openly critical of Local 79’s leadership at membership meetings, while others were more hesitant for fear of weakening solidarity or out of the hope that they could change the leadership’s policy from within. However, despite these tangible concerns by members, there were few sustained efforts to regenerate union involvement or to democratize the union and prepare for a future strike.

‘Third Way’ Urbanism

25As the centre of financial capital in Canada, Toronto is headquarters to six of Canada’s largest insurers, Canada’s five largest banks and is the nation’s largest employment centre responsible for one-sixth of all Canadian jobs. As a result the city has experienced significant growth of producer and media services, as well as a whole range of low-wage service and hospitality industries, especially professional services tied to housing related demand for credit, renovations and legal services. Like other ‘global cities,’ this has made Toronto highly dependent upon the internationalization of capital – both internationalizing to the world market and entering into Canada. Outside of provincial and federal transfers, municipalities derive some 90 percent of their own source revenues from property taxes and from this they must provide for their public utilities, public works, parks and recreational facilities, waste management, transit services, public housing and a whole range of other social services (FCM 2012, Fanelli forthcoming).

26By 2002 Mayor Lastman indicated that he would not be running for reelection. As a former New Democratic Party candidate, mayoral contender David Miller had forged close alliances with many labour and community activists and sought to present himself as the ‘progressive’ alternative as distinct from other candidates and in implicit rejection of the singular business driven model. In late-2003, David Miller was elected mayor. Mayor Miller and his political executive came from the ‘progressive wing’ of Council – a loose alliance between the social democrats, Liberals and a few independents. The electoral basis for this ‘Third Way’ coalition had drawn extensive backing from public sector unions, the Toronto & York Region Labour Council and progressive urban social movements (Keil 2000, Hackworth 2008). While in power Miller governed with the support of these movements in an informal kind of cooperation. The progressivism of Miller’s alliance, as opposed to the previous right-wing agenda of Mayor Lastman and council, had initially attempted to forge an alternative developmental project distinct from the singular business driven model of development at all costs. This alternative had largely been defined by notions of building Toronto as a ‘green economy,’ a ‘creative city,’ a ‘diverse city’ and one with ‘living wages’ (Desfor et al. 2006, Kipfer 2007, Kipfer and Petrunia 2009). These notions, while having some merits, also demonstrated profound political limitations. Notably, none of them really got at the urban crisis that Toronto faced in light of decades of underfunding.

27Rather than depart from the Lastman legacy of neoliberalism, however, the Miller coalition ruptured it with selective progressive strands (Kipfer 2010, Hackworth 2008). With the onset of the Great Recession, however, the political and economic constraints of this model became evident. In order to meet its fiscal challenges, City Council looked to extract wage and benefit concessions from its unionized workforce using the recession as a rationale. Thus the Great Recession served as a political and economic pretext justifying and intensifying the neoliberal reconfiguration of the city. What made the 2009 Toronto fiscal crisis unique was that it had merged with unprecedented national and provincial deficits.

28There are a few points to consider in how these structural fiscal problems have been addressed by the City of Toronto with similar attempts in cities across Canada. First, other levels of government have partly recognized the urban fiscal impasse but have done very little to address it in a structural way. This is in spite of the fact that since amalgamation but particularly since the onset of the Great Recession, pressures to increase spending by cities have been growing. It is growing from the downloading of service provisions to municipalities, but also from increasing population growth, the social dislocations from the economic crisis, and the need for greater urban social and physical infrastructure. Despite this, Torontonians have been repeatedly told by councillors and media pundits that they would need to get used to reduced social services and redistributive measures as part of sweeping cost containment measures.

29Second, corresponding city councils have, on the one hand, implemented a range of consumption based taxes on all citizens while, on the other hand, shifting away from commercial property-taxes, undervaluing business land assessments and providing grants and financial assistance for large corporations (City of Toronto 2010, 2011). Under the provisions of the new City of Toronto Act, 2006 Mayor David Miller took the opportunity to institute new revenue tools in the form of the Municipal Land Transfer Tax and the Personal Vehicle Ownership Tax. Both measures were implemented in conjunction with already-existing provincial fees. At the same time, however, City Councillors also “approved generous property tax breaks to attract high-paying, knowledge-economy jobs to strategic areas of the city, although the business community is already urging the city to further sweeten the pot” (Hanes 2008: n.p.).

30These incentives include Brownfield remediation (city subsidies, tax incentives and/or deferrals for major capital investments in properties requiring environmental clean-ups or in underdeveloped areas of the city), as well as Tax Incremental Equivalent Grants which include payments in lieu of taxes and subsidies/rebates for commercial developers. As the ‘progressive coalition’ at City Hall insisted on concessions and reductions to services, one of the few exceptions in speaking out against service level and staff cuts had been radical sections of the anti-poverty movement (Clarke 2008, Bradford 2007). And for good reason: the poor have seen a continued deterioration of urban services from Lastman over to the Miller period, with nearly 300,000 more Ontarians, a majority of which reside in Toronto, in poverty in 2009 compared with 2007 (Montebraaden 2011).

31Third, there are pressures to renew the contracting-out of city services and employment, and privatization of some capital assets as a means of temporarily relieving its immediate budgetary ailments. City council and administrators continue to raise, and the Toronto Board of Trade and other business associations lobby for, privatizing Enwave, Toronto Hydro and the Toronto Parking Authority, which represent assets with a combined value of $60 billion. This includes additional attempts to contract-out waste collection, childcare, recreation and other services, as well as privatizing Regent Park, Toronto’s most well-known public housing project (Kipfer and Petrunia 2009). But the actual evidence of outsourcing and privatization in North America, particularly at the municipal sphere, suggests that the privatization of formerly public-sector jobs – and the experiences of private sector building projects on urban transport and infrastructure projects in Toronto – has correlated with more expensive and less efficient goods and services, reduced public oversight and a lower quality of services provisioning (Loxley 2010, FCM 2006). While the sale of assets and contracting-out may provide one-time fiscal injections, they will not solve the underlying structural crisis facing Toronto and other municipalities.

32Fourth, the City continues to seek wage freezes and concessions from its city workers with the idea that in reducing its direct wage bill the fiscal problems of Toronto could be eased. However, as Albo and Rosenfeld (2009 n.p.) have argued: “Toronto’s fiscal challenges do not reside with the wages of city workers. They emerge from the distributional and tax policies that the city has adopted, and the wider economic crisis of capitalism. In particular, the failure of governments to properly fund welfare while using ever more of municipal budgets to fund policing and security operations, and the incessant campaigns at ‘branding’ the city to subsidize business”. Moreover, as economist Stanford (2008: n.p.) who sat as part of the City’s 2007 Independent Fiscal Review Panel argued, despite being generally well-run at the operational level and comparatively efficient, Toronto’s fiscal challenges are a result of an ongoing structural deficit: “In reviewing financial data on the city’s compensation costs, our report debunked the stereotype that the city’s employees are ‘fat cats’…average compensation for unionized workers (including overtime) was less than $40,000 in 2007” (see also City of Toronto 2008). All things considered, there is scant evidence to suggest that the City’s fiscal challenges are tied to overgenerous social services or excessive public sector compensation. Unfortunately, through the 2009 round of bargaining the Miller administration sought to make precisely this argument using the zero-sum rationale that public services were dependent on union wage restraint.

Collective Bargaining at City Hall

33The persistence of neoliberalism in Toronto, despite a ‘progressive coalition’ governing at city hall and new cooperation with labour and urban social movements, raises important questions about extra-local political pressures and economic constraints that cannot be resolved at the level of city government. It also raises issues of how local ‘progressive’ coalitions come to reinforce these neoliberal constraints, rather than build an empowering politics and new political capacities that challenge them. In particular, the problem is how these ‘progressive’ political coalitions have come to demand, and actively seek to impose, discipline from workers and unions to cope with these fiscal, political, and local constraints while the demands of the capitalist and professional classes are accommodated and incorporated in urban policies. How, then, did council rationalize going after workers wages? In what ways did the unions respond to such attacks? And what are some lessons that might be learned in the continued struggle against concessions?

34Seven issues were central to this round of bargaining. (1) Both leaderships of Locals 79 and 416 entered into bargaining with the understanding that the City would seek to remove the controversial Sick Leave Benefit Program (SLBP), which allowed for the banking of sick days; (2) trying to weaken job security provisions and seniority rights; (3) limit transfers and promotion; (4) impose a freeze on cost-of-living increases to wages; (5) implement two-tier wages; (6) contract-out employment; (7) and increase managerial control over the labour process through enhanced disciplinary and surveillance measures. In the lead up to the strike, Mayor Miller argued that “the world has changed” and the City needed to cut back on its labour costs and come to terms with the realities of the new economy. On the other hand, Local 79 members made clear to union officials at membership meetings that it was essential to continue the wage pattern that had led to settlements with other city unions. This included resisting efforts to eliminate the SLBP and their banking toward a severance payment upon retirement, opposing concessionary demands and rejecting attempts to privatize public services. Beyond holding on to what the union already had, there were no bargaining demands.

35Despite bargaining from January to June 2009 without a contract, Local 79’s executive gave little indication, publically or at membership meetings, of just how far apart the two sides were. With hours remaining before the strike deadline, the Local 79 executive haphazardly put together a strike coordinating team demonstrating its unpreparedness for the dispute. The Local leadership not only failed to preemptively mobilize its members but did not engage other workers in Toronto with any political or educational campaigns. As such, in the lead up to the strike Local 79’s leadership failed to publically make the connection between communities, public-sector jobs and services or why it was important to support workers defending decent employment conditions and wages. CUPE National was reduced to providing administrative support. On June 22, 2009 CUPE Locals 79 and 416 went on strike.

36Many union members presumed that the ‘progressive coalition’ at City Hall would come through for the public-sector unions that had backed Miller’s election campaign so forcefully. On the day that the union called the strike many workers showed up to work surprised to learn of the labour conflict. Many of the 24,000 striking workers simply did not know where to go or what to do. Picketing sites were unknown, where and how to register for picket duties were unspecified, picket captains had not been trained and there were few informational materials for members. The union website was not updated until days into the strike and remained limited to very general information.

37It was clear that Local 79 was unprepared strategically and tactically but also politically in important ways. First, there was a lack of experienced organizers leading the strike. The Local president had never been an organizer of a Local 79 strike nor had most of the current members of the executive committee. Second, the union did not book union organizers off as full-time organizers until right before the strike was set to start, resulting in a disorganized and unprepared executive which trickled-down to the rest of the membership. And third, financial and personnel resources were allocated in ineffective and inequitable ways across the city’s regional strike offices. Despite the fact that Toronto is one of the most expensive cities to live in, no hardship fund was set up as the strike went on and strike pay coordination was initiated only after the strike had already begun. Perhaps most problematically, however, the Local 79 bargaining committee acted in almost complete isolation from the rest of the membership.

  • 3 There were, of course, exceptions. Many experienced activists with a commitment to the membership a (...)

38As a result, by the end of the first week on strike many members experienced a lack of solidarity, mounting public resentment and increased feelings of marginalization. This was reflected in low morale on the picket lines and an unawareness of the key issues involved in negotiations3. The lack of concerted mobilizational efforts, little to no media attention for pro-strike voices and an inability to link workers’ struggles with the broader attack on public services limited strikers' traction with the general public. It was also clear that Toronto's broadly defined coalition of progressive forces both inside and outside of Toronto’s unions were unable to mobilize in an effective way around the strike. In contrast, right-wing critics had a field day blaming so-called selfish unionized workers. They pointed to garbage piling up on the streets and criticized Mayor Miller’s hesitation to force through a contract (Levy 2009, 2011).

39Unexpectedly, after 39 days on strike both Locals reached an agreement. Economically, both Locals managed to fight off major concessionary demands to freeze wages, institute a multi-tiered wage system and limit seniority-based promotion. The banking of sick days and cash-payouts was replaced with a short-term disability plan for new hires. Current workers were able to cash-out their accumulated sick-bank and switch to the short-term plan or keep their existing plan. Locals 79/416 were successful in gaining two percent raises over three years. Local 79 part-timers, however, did not see any extension of benefits nor do they have a sick plan. The other concessions were taken off the table.

40The economic gains of the strike, however, are little more than a hollow achievement. In fact, the political implications of the strike may far outlive the minor and potentially temporary economic benefits of the agreement. The strike was a political failure when it came to mobilizing sustained action and education, garnering public support as well as linking the defense of unionized workplaces with fighting for workers in non-unionized jobs, the underemployed and unemployed. Furthermore, the agreement did not make work any less precarious, particularly for part-timers. With some political imagination the strike could have been strategically situated in relation to a number of related issues such as public services and privatization, taxation and revenue generation as well as precarious work and poverty. While the strike was not an absolute failure, illusions about the strike being a victory only serve to politically disarm workers in the face of ongoing demands for concessions, potentially paving the way for further defeats.

From Miller Time to Ford Nation

41Following on the heels of the strike, Council implemented a 5 percent target of austerity across all departmental expenditures (City of Toronto 2009). What’s more, council moved forward with both new tax and fee hikes and further cuts in services: water rates rose 9 percent, property taxes by 4 percent and the renting of city-run facilities and recreational programs by 4 percent. The 2009 strike by Toronto civic workers ended in the midst of the Great Recession, with little more than one year to go before the next municipal election. In this sense, the 2009 strike served as a political lightning-rod in the run-up to the next election as the recession evolved.

42By early-2010 David Miller had indicated that he would not seek reelection. On October 25 2010, the most fiscally conservative Councilor in the previous term, Rob Ford, was elected the new Mayor of Toronto. Throughout his campaign, Ford used the 2009 strike to direct public anger and frustration toward so-called lavish union wages and wasteful city spending (Kohler 2010a, b). Indicative of a shift in the centre of political gravity at city hall, the ‘progressive wing’ at City Hall was replaced with a majority conservative Council who all but swept suburban wards (Saberi and Kipfer 2010). Toronto’s so-called ‘centre-left’ forces failed to hold support, while various labour and community groups failed to organize in an effective manner against right-wing populism (Albo, 2009). Much like former Ontario Premier Mike Harris' political platform of the mid-1990s that drove the provincial turn to neoliberalism after the failures of the prior ‘progressive’ New Democratic government, Rob Ford took advantage of a similar political environment at the city level.

43Ford stuck to easily absorbable talking points – tax cuts, less government, less unions, more business investment – and rode to power deriding the alleged waste and inefficiency that prevailed at City Hall (Kohler 2010a, b). In the vitriolic rhetoric that characterized the campaign, Ford vowed to put an end to the “Gravy Train”:

44During his mayoral bid, Mr. Ford tapped into the wellspring of resentment over that strike [2009 civic workers’ strike] to propel himself to victory, and he and other supporters of privatization raised the spectre of it several times...While the day brought some compromise, the Mayor worked from the onset to draw a sharp ideological line among Council members, characterizing his critics as ‘tax-and-spend socialists’. ‘We are going to divide ourselves up into two groups’, he said. ‘This is going to be very simple for the taxpayers to see’” (Church and White 2011).

  • 4 This includes: eliminating the $60 vehicle tax; freezing property taxes for 2011; cutting Councilou (...)

45Dubbing his supporters “Ford Nation”, he contended that Toronto had become a fiefdom for powerful, monopolistic and uncompetitive unions and pledged that he would stand up to Toronto’s unions, privatize assets, contract-out services and reduce taxes. While Ford’s campaign platform has yet to be fully implemented, there have already been some important victories4. Ford and his allies on Council have also sought to slice all departmental budgets by an additional 10 percent (or $360 million in total cuts), while increasing user-fees for rentals, recreation and arts programs by on average three percent (City of Toronto 2011). Still on the agenda are proposals to sell a 10 percent stake in Toronto Hydro (which has earned the city $2 billion since amalgamation), sell the city’s 43 percent stake in green energy company Enwave and 706 subsidized housing units. City council also voted to study privatizing daycares and nursing homes, and is considering further reducing library hours and eliminating a Hardship Fund that helps the poor pay for essential medical items such as wheelchairs and casts. Hundreds of parcels of land are also for sale (Dale 2011b, James 2011).

46Given Ford's drive to radically revamp the contours and delivery of public services, he and Council are also seeking to squeeze more “productivity” out of workers, strip-away benefits and lower the quality of service provision. Since taking office Toronto’s public sector has been reduced by 2,000 workers (a $140 million cut), mostly from leaving vacancies unfilled, with explicit plans to reduce them by another 7,000 (Maloney 2011b). Ford has been unapologetic in arguing that “The gravy is in the number of employees we have at City Hall” (Dale 2011c). It is clear that the crisis and the drive to austerity are hardening neoliberalism, particularly at the municipal level. Ford continues to push for privatizing as much as possible using the rationale that the budgetary crisis is caused by a “spending problem”. In financing his first year in support of a balanced operating budget for 2011, Ford used $330 million of the surplus left over by former Mayor Miller, froze property taxes (despite being one of the lowest in the Greater Toronto Area) and TTC fares, and introduced over $23 million in new user fees (Maloney 2011a, City of Toronto 2011).

  • 5 For example, Ford’s first major stab at privatizing Toronto’s public services easily passed when Ci (...)

47Despite the changes, Ford’s promise of neither increasing taxes nor cutting services was utter electoral fantasy. This is most clearly evident in Mayor Rob Ford’s campaign pledge to remove Toronto’s land transfer tax. Expected to bring in nearly $300 million in revenue in 2011, it is hard to imagine how such an important revenue stream could be replaced. Ford’s budgetary plans are based on radical budgetary cuts and one-time fiscal injections that seek to turn public assets and services into profitable outlets for private sector capitalists. The purpose of these neoliberal budgetary policies is to transform the nature of government, bolster capitalist profits and cheapen labour costs5.

48What’s more, in Spring 2011 Ford and a $3 million team of “gravy sniffing” consultants undertook a six month Core Services Review that sought to dramatically increase the scope of private sector provisioning of services. The City also undertook a “service efficiency study” to find where improvements in economic performance can be made, as well as a user-fee review exploring whether the city could raise more than 1,000 different fees it collects to the tune of $1.4-billion (Ridler 2011). Across his entire political career, Ford has argued for turning public goods and services into profitable investments for the private sector. The KPMG Core Services Review aims to provide the political and ideological rationale for such an undertaking. The reports put forward a catalogue of suggestions for cuts to the City of Toronto’s budget (KPMG 2011).

49It is important to stress, however, that the KPMG reports do not uncover any real ‘savings’ in the sense of efficiencies in delivering the same level of services. All the so-called ‘savings’ come at the cost of declining service levels, redistribution, access or quality and presumed lower wages for private sector delivery. This has been a recurrent consequence of the neoliberal public administration that KPMG advocates in which they gain by first advocating the cuts and then coming in to help administer the services just cut and privatized. In the end, the Review revealed no fat, instead demonstrating just how efficiently the city was actually being run (Hume 2011, James 2011, Selley 2011). In an effort to further meet its aggressive reduction targets, the City also announced it would be offering some 50,000 workers a buyout package (White 2011). Much headway has been made in the commercialization and privatization of City services apart from the Core Services Review however. Toronto Council, for instance, passed a new initiative that sells advertising space on the city's transit system, including naming rights for subway lines and stations for $324 million over 12 years.

  • 6 While this is not the place for a detailed overview examining the pros and cons of various revenue (...)

50Of course, urban fiscal challenges are not imaginary. They are the result of both political decisions and economic factors. From federal and provincial reductions to transfers, the erosion of progressive (e.g. corporate and personal) and consumptive taxes (e.g. federal Goods and Services Tax) and, more locally, minimal commercial and developmental charges, comparatively low property taxes and a political unwillingness to implement alternative means of municipal revenue generation. In this regard, the problems of Toronto’s current budgetary impasse are not unique to the Ford administration. But Ford’s own contribution to its making is not without important political implications. The budget could have been immediately offset if Council reversed some of the revenue streams Ford had cut in coming into office or raised property taxes in order to keep up with inflation. The fact remains however that more substantive tripartite funding arrangements and larger fiscal measures are required to address the city’s revenue incapacities6. The Miller-era Independent Fiscal Review Panel sought to kick-start such discussions addressing the structural problems of funding Canadian cities. Panel members suggested that Canadian municipalities needed new revenue tools to improve funding for cities, particularly for large urban centres like Toronto. The key difference between Miller's Fiscal Review Panel and Ford's Core Services Review is that while the former acknowledged decades of provincial and federal downloading without matching fiscal supports, the latter has only sought to cut services and increase the use of private sector delivery models. The Fiscal Review Panel argued that a National municipal strategy was needed, particularly for infrastructure, water, waste, sewage and transit systems. The Core Services Review, on the other hand, ignores the long-term picture by focusing only on immediate cuts rather than means of revenue growth.

51The Ford administration is seeking to undermine public sector unionism in Toronto precisely because Toronto has been and remains one of the centres of North American unionism and class struggle (Kealey 1995, Tufts 2004, 2007). And because CUPE Local 79 is one of the largest and historically militant unions in Canada, extracting concessions would signal an open season for other municipalities and tiers of government. This is why Ford is being so aggressive with respect to layoffs, cuts in services, selling off assets and so forth. He has the support of Toronto’s and Canada’s elites who are driving this agenda in the private sector. The ability of Mayor Ford and allies to take a hard-line posture with respect to workplace concessions in future rounds of bargaining, as much as the outcome of the Core Services Review, will be the test of the Ford agenda and whether conservatives can consolidate their hold over Council.

  • 7 Harvey (2008: n.p.) suggests adopting “the right to the city as both working slogan and political i (...)

52The political vacuum in the local state created by the retreat of the centre-left Miller Council has yet to be filled. It is not clear that the moral outrages at the cuts that have been the dominant political response of various communities and some unions will lead organizationally to anything more. A long period of stagnation could heighten the urban crisis and poorly-funded central cities like Toronto will continue their social polarization and decline (Hulchanski 2010). The political coalitions that have been thrown up in Toronto to fight the cuts over the last two decades have done little to reverse these processes. In this regard, there needs to be more thinking about anti-capitalist alternatives unencumbered by the structural constraints and market imperatives imposed by capitalism. Some important initiatives such as the “right to the city” campaigns are opening up such questions (Harvey 2008).7 But only new organizational capacities will make such ideas politically viable. In this sense, new political coalitions would need to be rooted in union and community struggles with the aim to advance a new urban agenda that rejects the dogma of neoliberalism. Rather than allow the continued restructuring of municipalities to consolidate neoliberalism across scales of public administration, urban spaces have the potential to become radical points of political and economic divergence in the continued struggle against capitalism.

Conclusions and Directions for Future Research

53Since at least amalgamation municipal workers in Toronto have been under pressure to forfeit concessions and expand the scope of market discipline. Mayor Lastman used the reduction in transfer funds as a political rationale to increase the pace of work amid attempts to privatize city services and assets. Rather than depart from the neoliberal project, the Miller regime infused it with selective progressive strands as a means to bolster competitiveness, enhance entrepreneurial opportunities and promote Toronto as a “global city.” Mayor Miller justified the concessionary demands by arguing that the “world has changed” and that as a result of the recession extra-local and municipal pressures demanded austerity. This was most apparent in the City’s efforts to extract concessions by arguing that the availability of municipal services depended on wage restraint. While the 2009 civic workers’ strike managed to achieve some minor increases in economic compensation, it was a significant political failure in its inability to draw connections between the attacks against public services and workers to tax shifting for competitiveness and chronic underfunding. Few connections were made between the defense of public sector workers and services and their relationship to the users of those services. These concerns could potentially have been framed as a clear political message arguing in favour of decent working conditions for all. Moreover, the Local 79 executive and, by extension, its members demonstrated an alarmingly ill-equipped response to the city’s demands for concessions along with limited community support and solidarity.

54While some of this is certainly due to logistical issues related to the sheer size of CUPE Local 79, the union’s executive committee bargained in almost complete isolation from the rest of the union. Equally important, little was done to facilitate membership educational initiatives, build independent organizational capacities or foster a sense of collective unity. As such, the debacle of 2009 was both a leadership issue and an organizational one. Rectifying these concerns cannot be accomplished overnight or at the calling of a strike, but requires a longer-term approach that stresses the political necessity of building active solidarity from the ground-up.

55These failures formed part of the backdrop leading to the election of a conservative mayor and council, which has vowed to strip the city’s unions of their benefits, privatize services and assets, and increase worker discipline. The implications for future rounds of bargaining seem bleak given the Ford administration’s insistence on reducing the wages and size of the city’s workforce, bringing benefit levels down in line with the private sector and contracting-out of employment. Although variegated and non-linear, the shared political agenda from Lastman to Miller and Ford, suggests that if unions are to reappear as a movement and not simply hang on as a relic of the past, they need to move beyond the limited defense of their members’ own interests and to those of the working class as a whole. But unions in any form are alone capable of resisting the coordinated push for austerity and hardening of neoliberalism. Doing so requires having feet both inside and outside the trade union movement rooted in an organizational form explicitly intent on building a broader working class movement across the many cleavages among workers. In other words, there needs to be a class-oriented social movement unionism – left of social democracy – and infused with a critical analysis of (neoliberal) capitalism.

56Future research will need to compare and contrast Toronto’s fiscal challenges with those of other municipalities in order to determine to what extent this is locally specific and generalizable. Comparisons might also explore negotiated settlements in other municipalities and the strategies and tactics employed by labour and management in their efforts to reach negotiated settlements. The initiatives undertaken by Local 79 post-2009 strike will help to determine to what extent the union is willing to resist concessions, how the leadership plans to extend grassroots and community involvement, and in what sense rank and file workers will press for greater accountability and involvement. Future rounds of bargaining between Locals 79/416 will also reveal how both the City and unions have adapted to the conditions of austerity, and to what extent the Ford administration has been successful in implementing further reforms.

57Considering the suspension of free collective bargaining and decades of demands for concessions, it is becoming increasingly clear that unions and oppressed persons generally can no longer, if they ever could, put their faith in the courts, laws or governments to enforce the (however limited) post-war class compromise. For some three decades, labour and community activists have been unable to stop let alone reverse the progressive dismantlement of Keynesian-era social programs amidst an increasingly militant and recalcitrant state and capitalist class offensive. The attacks against the collective bargaining rights of workers, then, should unmistakably be understood as acts of class war. If the offensive is to be fundamentally countered a working class unionism must rekindle the struggle for realizing a world without capitalism.

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1 Local 79 has a membership of 18,000, although various contingent, seasonal and part-time staff push estimates to 24,000. Some members were deemed “essential” (e.g. EMS workers) and did not strike. Approximately 70 percent of Local 79’s members are women with some 50 percent representative of historically racialized groups. Approximately half of Local 79’s members are employed in part-time, seasonal and contingent forms of employment, with inconsistent hours and without the supplemental health benefits enjoyed by full-time employees. Local 416 has roughly 6,200 members. Together, they work in areas of public health and education, child and elder care, parks, recreation, water treatment, Emergency Medical Services, as well as housing and court services, road maintenance, by-law and safety enforcement, building inspectors, animal rescue, waste collection and social services administration.

2 Formerly part of a two-tier municipality, six cities and seven governments were merged through an act of provincial parliament on January 1, 1998 creating the new single-tier City of Toronto (Boudreau 2000).

3 There were, of course, exceptions. Many experienced activists with a commitment to the membership and a strong sense of social justice sought to consistently provide information to picketers, boost morale and historicize strike actions. On some picket lines a real sense of union solidarity was created and nurtured as workers united and the antagonism between workers and the employer became clearer. Many also began raising difficult questions about the practices of the city, union and larger systemic issues related to Toronto’s fiscal concerns. During the strike, members of many other union locals and community activists showed their solidarity with striking city workers in the form of strike support barbeques, media releases and public rallies. But these examples were the exceptions and not the rule.

4 This includes: eliminating the $60 vehicle tax; freezing property taxes for 2011; cutting Councilours’ expense budgets from $53,000 to $30,000; reducing funding for libraries; eliminating TTC bus routes; scrapping Transit City; having the TTC declared an essential service by the province and removing the right to strike for transit workers; selling off 22 community housing units; listing the Toronto Zoo and three city-owned theatres for sale; and privatizing a portion of Toronto’s garbage collection (Dale 2011a, Vincent 2011, TEA, 2011).

5 For example, Ford’s first major stab at privatizing Toronto’s public services easily passed when City Council voted to contract out a portion of the city’s garbage collection, potentially laying off upwards of 300 Local 416 workers (Ridler and Maloney 2011). In addition to outsourcing garbage collection, the plan increases the number of Litter Vac Operations conducted by private contractors from 12 to 29, contracts-out Litter Bin collection within City parks and supplements curbside residential waste collection by private contractors on a call-out basis (TEA 2010, 2011, Rosen & Associates 2011).

6 While this is not the place for a detailed overview examining the pros and cons of various revenue sources and financial tools, extensive research has demonstrated the social and economic benefits of expanding the tax base and reinvesting in public services. This includes increasing taxes on capital and wealth, taxes on private consumption to fund public consumption and progressivity and multiple tax brackets. Additional suggestions include an employer payroll tax, high-occupancy lane and highway tolls, land-value capture, parking space levies, municipal sales taxes, downtown congestion fees, corporate and income taxes, hotel levies and an increase in development charges (AECOM-KPMG 2013, TRBOT 2013, FCM 2003).

7 Harvey (2008: n.p.) suggests adopting “the right to the city as both working slogan and political ideal, precisely because it focuses on the question of who commands the necessary connection between urbanization and surplus production and use. The democratization of that right, and the construction of a broad social movement to enforce its will is imperative if the dispossessed are to take back the control which they have for so long been denied, and if they are to institute new modes of urbanization”.

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Electronic reference

Carlo Fanelli, Neoliberal Urbanism and the Assault Against Public Services and Workers in Toronto, 2006-2011Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Briefings, Online since 07 March 2014, connection on 25 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Carlo Fanelli

Carlo Fanelli is an Instructor and SSHRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Politics & Public Administration, Ryerson University, with interests in critical political economy, labour studies, Canadian public policy, climate change, social movements, urban sociology and education. Carlo is editor of Alternate Routes: A Journal of Critical Social Research and maintains a collection of his writing at Thanks are due to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for making this research possible. Email:

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