New garbage trucks sit idle as pilot pickup project in limbo

A fleet of brand-new garbage trucks is sitting idle in a garage expanded just to house them, but a pilot project to put them on the streets is still not done and could trigger a second labour battle between the city and one of its biggest unions.

The garbage pick-up pilot project is a journey that began with a labour dispute.

In January 2018 the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 500 (CUPE) and the City of Winnipeg agreed to settle a grievance filed by the union over the violation of its collective agreement and the award of a massive garbage collection contract to the private sector.

“The parties will initiate and participate in a pilot project (the “Pilot Project”) in which CUPE members will perform automated front load garbage bin collection work currently performed by outside forces,” the settlement states.

There was one condition — it had to cost no more than the private sector contract already in place.

The two sides signed a memorandum of settlement, but it required political direction 

Nearly two years later, the public service had to tell the politicians it wasn’t coming together. It would cost the city an extra $656,000 for two years and roughly $500,000 in start-up costs for CUPE to do the work.

That didn’t meet the test set out by city council — it exceeded the budget they approved.

More time needed

The deal, which isn’t yet completed, would allow city workers to collect waste from bins like this located at multi-family buildings in a section of the city. (Terry Stapleton/CBC)

In January this year, these facts were presented in a report to the committee responsible for the water and waste department: the pilot project can’t proceed because it costs too much.

But senior staff asked councillors for more time.

The head of the department, Moira Geer, appeared in front of the committee with a request for another month. They were “grappling” with a cost difference in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We need to continue to work with CUPE to see what could possibly be done to bridge that gap. Because right now as the public service we don’t have the authority to proceed based on the numbers [we have] right now,” Geer said.

Next week, councillors on the city’s executive policy committee will be asked to review two years of work on the yet-to-be completed deal allowing city workers to collect waste at multi-family buildings in a section of the city.

One city councillor who sits on the water and waste committee says he should have been given far more information about the pilot and wants someone fired for not providing it.

‘I’m shocked,’ says councillor

Coun. Kevin Klein says the settlement agreement with CUPE should have been included in any report on pilot project. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The news that roots of the pilot project came from a settlement between the city and CUPE came as a surprise to Councillor Kevin Klein.

Klein says he had no idea the pilot project had been triggered by a grievance and settlement. It wasn’t in the report in front of the water and waste committee and he wasn’t part of city council when it was originally debated.

Klein says the settlement should have been part of the information in front of the committee and he’s “shocked” it wasn’t. 

“Somebody should be fired for this. I’ll tell you that right now. Why wasn’t the information shared? Why weren’t we told? Who gave that direction? ” Klein said.

‘That’s why its called a pilot project’

CUPE 500 president Gord Delbridge says his union will look at legal action if the city doesn’t live up to the agreement it signed for the pilot project. (Trevor Brine CBC )

The president of CUPE 500 says countless hours went into negotiating the terms of the pilot project and the union believes the language in the settlement signed in 2018 is legally strong enough to back the union’s position.

“There is a legal agreement in place as to this is how we are going to proceed. That alone is going to get costly for the city because we will open that up again and there will be a lot of legal costs and we will be seeking damages,” said CUPE’s Gord Delbridge.

Delbridge says the high costs of bringing the contract in-house should come down over time and that’s what the project is there to prove.

“We need to bring some garbage collection back in-house in order to get a level of transparency back. So we can do a cost comparison with the private sector and get actual numbers. That’s why its called a pilot project,” Delbridge said.

Delbridge says buying the trucks before the contract was figured out “wasn’t a very fiscally responsible way of doing business.” 

Trucks ordered due to ‘long lead times’

CBC News asked for an interview with a senior administrator from the city, but the request was declined, as was information about how many trucks were purchased, their cost and when they were bought. A request to take photos or video of the trucks was also declined.

Instead the city sent an email saying staff had authority from city council to purchase the equipment and do other work to support the as yet unsigned contract.

“Due to long lead times for acquiring the fleet, trucks had to be ordered well in advance of the pilot start date,” a city spokesperson wrote.

The administration says the majority of the $500,000 in expenses to get ready for the project would not be lost if the pilot didn’t get approved.

“Approximately 75 per cent of the startup cost referenced in the administrative report are on hold pending council decision, meaning the city would not incur those costs if the pilot does not go forward,” wrote the spokesperson.

Negotiation times defended

Water and waste committee chair Cindy Gilroy defended the long negotiations to get the pilot project going, with still no resolution, and said it “was a very different process — we don’t normally do stuff in house.”

Gilroy acknowledged the union may launch legal action if the city doesn’t live up to the settlement it signed with CUPE.

“It is something we go through a lot with the unions. We have to look at these agreements. But at the end of the day, it will be council’s decision,” Gilroy said.

She said more information will be made public next Tuesday at executive policy committee — about the pilot project, the equipment that was purchased and the legal position of the city.

Another item that will confront Gilroy and fellow councillors making decisions for the upcoming budget is a cost-cutting recommendation by senior staff at the water and waste department to end all garbage pick-up at multi-family buildings entirely.