Ask Not …

This morning, I was waiting for a steetcar on Queen Street after brunch at one of my favourite hangouts, Bonjour Brioche.  On the carstop sign, I noticed a sticker had been added saying “My Toronto Does Nothing For Me”.

This seems to be a prevailing sentiment among people who have lots to complain about, usually in relation to their perceived right to have the City and its agencies (and everyone else’s taxes) give them ideal services with nothing in return.

To those who would have the CUPE strike ended yesterday with whatever Draconian consequences (usually something slow and painful) for the public workers, I have little sympathy.  Everyone focuses on the garbage collectors, but they are a small part of the total civic workforce.  Many other services come from dedicated staff who perform a myriad of duties for us, the broader public.

I say this as someone recently retired from a public career as an IT Manager at the Toronto District School Board.  Most of my staff were CUPE members, and they were dedicated to keeping our systems running as well as possible for hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and staff.  Whenever we attempted to hire from outside, job applications were overwhelmingly of less than stellar quality even though the IT market is supposedly depressed.  This says something about the competitiveness of our wage levels.

Following the 1998 shotgun weddings of the cities and school boards in Toronto, both the City and Board staff went through immense upheaval as services were consolidated.  Board IT staffing was cut by over half even though the number of students and schools remained the same, and the demand for networked services grew immensely.

Early retirement buyouts took the cream of the organization, the people who actually knew how it worked and how to get things done, in every department, out of the shop.  We saved the taxpayers millions, but only on paper, and lost years of knowledge.  Informal relationships between departments that greased the wheels in every part of the Board vanished only to be replaced by the sort of cumbersome bureaucracy so-often complained of in large agencies.

A few rotten apples were, with some effort, removed, but they were exceptions among skilled, hard-working staff.  Such people will be found in any organization.  Meanwhile, senior management ranks filled with many whose ambitions overreached their abilities.  Try getting rid of people like that without a handsome payout, assuming the organization even recognizes it has a problem.

When I look at the current civic workers’ strike in Toronto, I am disappointed that it happened, and that it’s not yet over.  I am not going to debate the merits of each side’s position here because that would turn a transit blog into a repository for anti-union, anti-public service and, yes, anti-Miller bilge that has quite enough play elsewhere.  In brief, I think the City’s position is reasonable, and those playing politics would do well to consider how they might handle the situation otherwise.

Toronto does a lot for me personally by permitting a rich varied lifestyle and a broad menu of diversions.  In return, I work to advance public services, especially those provided by the transit system, even when my advocacy runs headlong into pig-headed politicians and professional staff.  Many other advocates, some well-known, some only members of a small neighbourhood association, make their marks on Toronto.  A small army of civic staff through many agencies deliver the services we all work so hard to attain.

The strike needs to end, and soon, so that we can all concentrate on the betterment of the city.  Part of that betterment is the spirit of involvement in civic affairs at the political and community level that is the real strength of Toronto.  Many citizens care about their city, about their Toronto.  That inclusive, plural voice is the heart of “my” city, a city where people ask what they can do to make it a better place everywhere from the posh waterfront to the poor suburbs.