Crossing guards, contract flipping: latest battle in war on unionized workers | Fred Hahn

By Fred Hahn

Law360 Canada (May 24, 2023, 2:36 PM EDT) --
Fred Hahn
Fred Hahn
“Infuriating” doesn’t begin to describe the situation facing hundreds of newly unionized school crossing guards in Toronto. 

A few years ago, this group of workers believed they deserved better; in fact, they knew they did. Their jobs were precarious, with pay just a few cents over minimum wage, and virtually non-existent benefits. Although crossing guards are out in every kind of weather, they didn’t even have sick days. And by any measure, the work is dangerous: crossing guards engage with drivers in some of the busiest intersections in the city. Every day, these workers put their bodies in harm’s way to protect children, older persons and other vulnerable pedestrians.

So, some crossing guards began talking to one another. In their diversity, they connected over shared concerns and shared injustices. And they began organizing, because they knew they could improve their lives and their jobs if they joined a union. It took a long time and thousands of one-on-one conversations, but in 2022, these brave, patient and valiant workers became members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Their story proves that organizing works for workers. In their first collective agreement, school crossing guards secured a 14 per cent wage increase, paid sick days, and improved benefits covering eyeglasses and orthotics. An overwhelming majority of members – 96.4 per cent – voted in favour of the agreement.

But recently, reality came crashing down. City of Toronto officials recommended “flipping” crossing guard contracts in the next round of tenders, which would allow the city to procure services from a different company at a slightly lower price.

Senior city officials know there’s a continuing shortage of crossing guards. Even with support from school board trustees, it can take more than a year to assign a crossing guard to an intersection. And it’s no secret that low pay, poor working conditions and precarity are at the root of the shortage, or that a revolving door of crossing guards hurts the safety, quality of service and sense of community that a stable workforce creates.

But none of that seems to matter to those making the recommendation to flip contracts. Nor does jeopardizing recent gains won by newly unionized crossing guards, the majority of whom are racialized women. Nor does the reality that, if the contracts are flipped, the decision will hurt 400 unionized workers, as their jobs slip away to more precarious and non-unionized workers.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that governments forfeited the interests of citizens and workers to try to save a few bucks.  

But eventually we all feel the impact of such shortsighted policies. Workers are choosing to quit, retire, or avoid some jobs altogether because wages are too low and conditions too poor. Meanwhile, hospitals, child care centres, long-term care homes — and yes, the companies that employ crossing guard — can’t retain and recruit enough staff to fill existing vacancies. The resulting staff shortages limit access to the services we need, force program cancellations, increase wait times and lead to longer wait lists.

This time, we should take the lesson. We shouldn’t take school crossing guards for granted. As low paid, part-time workers, their role is often overlooked — until of course tragedy strikes and then we praise their courage. But they shouldn’t be punished for demanding a say in the future of their work. Instead, we must insist that a stable, fairly paid workforce of crossing guards delivers benefits to our schools and our communities.

There’s still time to save these jobs and extend to this group of crossing guards the respect they deserve.

The decision to flip contracts goes to the city’s General Government Committee on May 30. Councillors on the committee can vote to make sure that Toronto lives up the standards of a fair employer. And Torontonians can urge them to do right by this group of workers.

As Myra Chico, the acting president of CUPE 5519 that represents the crossing guards, says:

“We’re not asking for too much. We want to work; we want to keep children and elderly people in our city safe. We just want what’s fair. To have put in so much time and effort only to have our rights stripped away because staff want to save the city a few cents at the cost of workers — it’s shameful. But we’ll do everything we can to fight for our future.”

Fred Hahn is the president of CUPE Ontario

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