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City, workers find public waste solutions in Peterborough

Municipal workers and city officials in Peterborough, Ont., have worked together to keep the city’s solid waste collection public.

This city-union cooperation headed off risky plans to privatize. The end result is improved services and excellent value for money for Peterborough residents.

It’s all documented in a new CUPE report, Costs and Consequences of Solid Waste Collective Alternatives in Peterborough.

Three years ago, the city of Peterborough appeared to be dead-set on privatizing and contracting out a range of city services, including “managed competition” for solid waste collection.

The city had commissioned a consultant’s report on public works that recommended extensive restructuring as well as outsourcing and contracting out of a number of services. The jobs and livelihood of dozens of city workers and the quality of the services hung in the balance.

The city took the constructive step of consulting and cooperating with public works employees, instead of only relying on outside consultants. CUPE 504 leadership and national representatives Grant Darling, Phil Jacobs, Allison Davidson and others worked with Peterborough finance officials to develop a detailed analysis of the costs of their service.

The approach made perfect sense. Who understands these services better than the people who provide and administer them? Unfortunately, many organizations rely on superficial advice from outside consultants instead of working collaboratively with their own employees.

As part of this process, CUPE 504 had CUPE’s economist review the consultants’ reports, analyze the city’s costing model, provide evidence on the comparative costs of private and public waste collection and meet with city officials.

This detailed analysis was presented in economist Toby Sanger’s report, Costs and Consequences of Solid Waste Collective Alternatives in Peterborough.

Sanger found:

  • Peterborough’s costs of public garbage collection are low compared to similar Ontario cities
  • There is no solid evidence that contracting out solid waste keeps costs lower than public delivery – in fact, private costs tend to rise faster than public costs
  • There are other benefits of public delivery that should be factored into cost comparisons, and
  • Contracting out means giving up flexibility and exposes municipalities to greater risk.

Members of CUPE 504 and city officials worked hard together to identify areas where real cost efficiencies and service improvements could be achieved. 

Many of these were included in subsequent collective agreements, initially in a one-year agreement that expired at the end of 2009 and then in a three year deal just inked with the city that runs until the end of 2012. These agreements maintain cost control while providing workers with wage and benefit improvements.

The end result has been excellent value for money, improved service quality and a positive relationship between the city and its workers. The labour-management situation in the city has rarely been better. The union and senior management meet regularly to discuss how to improve work arrangements.

Peterborough’s positive experience—and CUPE’s report—provide an excellent example and useful resource for CUPE members and municipal officials in other communities considering solid waste privatization.