It's not ducks we are hunting...



In my lead for the latest city salaries story, I used the familiar expression “hunting where the ducks are.”

Meaning that, if city hall is to achieve significant savings in wage costs, it will have to find those savings in the most significant portion of its salaries and benefits spending, namely unionized workers.

Except I am starting to question the validity of that tired metaphor.

Ducks are popular targets for hunters because they are plentiful and unable to defend themselves.

If we were to stretch the metaphor to cost-cutting on collective agreements, then hunting season only comes around once every two, three or even four years.

And when it's open season, city officials are liable to enter that place “where the ducks are” and find themselves facing...

Well, what metaphor best replaces our poor defenceless mallard here? Wolves? A bit uncharitable, perhaps. Bears? Perhaps city negotiators do indeed feel their stuff is being rummaged through while they sleep.

I would settle on dragons. Not because our local police, fire and city-inside-and-outside-worker negotiators particularly resemble fire-breathing beasts, but rather to convey a sense of scale.

When city officials start hunting for savings while negotiating with unions, they are up against not individuals, but organizations spanning the entire province, or in the case of protective services, a provincial arbitration system that makes decisions on a scale so large that Brockville does indeed resemble a puny hunter facing a mythical beast.

Councillor Jason Baker is right to argue that, if his colleagues are serious about savings in the wages line items, they must first formulate a coherent strategy for collective bargaining: an objective they hope to achieve, and a way to get there.

(By the way, this whole strategic talk would likely take place behind closed doors, as legislation allows councils to go in camera for labour negotiations, and no council would want to tip its hand.)

Once they have that strategy, one has a hard time imagining it implemented when the interest arbitration system works directly against it.

To achieve any kind of results, Brockville needs help on a scale much larger than itself – the same provincial scale on which the labour unions operate.

In practical terms, this means the interest arbitration reform so long sought at the provincial level.

It also means a united front among Ontario municipalities, so that efficiencies become the norm against which local union negotiators measure their results. Local collective agreements are usually based on the salaries offered in comparator municipalities. Ultimately, the entire comparator group has to go down.

It may take two or three contracts to get it there,” Baker told council.

He is right to warn us to prepare for a long hunt, but two or three contracts is more than a little optimistic. We don't even have the right armour yet.