The Toronto Transit Commission wants to negotiate a no-strike agreement with construction unions working on major streetcar line expansions across the city, to ensure labour peace leading up to and beyond the 2015 Pan Am games.
But some councillors fear such a deal will cost taxpayers millions, possibly tens of millions more, in exchange for unionized trade workers giving up the right to strike.
Transit City, a $10 billion program and key project of Mayor David Miller, is expected to transform the city over the next 10 years with 120 kilometres of new streetcar lines. The games have added an unprecedented urgency for the TTC to get at least the Scarborough-Malvern line built on time.
Toronto Councillor Doug Holyday said if costs on such a big project went up by only 1 per cent, it would mean an extra $100 million.
"Unions aren't known for giving away things for nothing," Holyday said. "And the right to strike is the power behind the union to a great extent. I'm sure if they're giving up the right to strike, there's something in it for them."
However, Councillor Adam Giambrone, the TTC's chair, insisted that fears of increased costs are unfounded.
"We need the work to be done on time and on budget, and the agreement ensures there will be no delays or extra costs due to labour shortages or disruptions," he said in an email. "The building trades, in exchange, get guaranteed work that allows them to invest training and apprenticeships for young people in Toronto neighbourhoods."
A no-strike deal became possible after changes to construction legislation in Ontario, said Jay Peterson, business manager of the Central Ontario Building Trades, which represents about 70,000 construction workers.
The next round of bargaining for new contracts begins next year, Peterson said.
"Potentially, any union could go on strike and upset Transit City," he said. "That would be terrible for our city and our workers. So we're looking to give away our right to strike so that we can count on seamless construction no matter what happens next year."
During the last bargaining round three years ago, labourers went out on strike, he said.
"Labourers are very important in the application of concrete, working hand-in-hand with the carpenters. So if we had one union like that go out, everything may grind to a halt in a couple of weeks. That would be terrible."
Councillor Peter Milczyn, a TTC commissioner who voted against negotiating such a deal with the Central Ontario Building Trades, said such a major initiative should have included background on whether other no-strike deals have led to higher costs.
Milczyn objected to the handling of the issue, in the form of a one-page memo from Giambrone that was approved in a 7-2 vote with no discussion.
"This came out of left field," he said. "This is not a good process to follow."
Holyday echoed Milczyn's concern that more information is needed on how so-called Project Labour Agreements have worked.
"There should be quite a bit of background information on something this big, and what the effect has been on the overall costs where it's been used before. Maybe it's good. But to go into this blind would be a mistake."
The provincial government has committed to fund the first three streetcar lines to be built under the Transit City program.
A spokesperson for Transportation Minister Jim Bradley referred questions to Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency.
Metrolinx said it is aware of the issue but didn't know the TTC would be dealing with it Wednesday. The transit body has yet to come up with a position on it.
The TTC didn't have a no-strike clause during construction of the $1 billion Sheppard subway line. A three-week strike in 1998 by operating engineers and heavy equipment operators brought work on the line to a standstill.