On the TTC Strike, ATU Local 113 and Essential Services

Davisville Entrance

The photo above is entitled Davisville Entrance, First Hour of the TTC Strike by JBCurio. The photo is used in accordance to his Creative Commons license.

No sign of baby Nora, yet. Those contractions that we felt on Thursday night are still around, but still irregular. We remain on tenterhooks.

As many of you know, I help run a website called Transit Toronto, a fan run resource dedicated to the history and support of public transportation in the Greater Toronto Area. In terms of its audience, it dwarfs my 300 daily visits to this blog by more than 10-1. As amazing as it may seem, people come to that website and its associated blog in order to get transit news, and I feel a responsibility to provide them with up-to-date information, even though this is not technically supposed to be my job.

I should say that I’m aided in this effort by my co-webmaster Aaron Adel, and by such tireless workers as Robert Mackenzie and Nick Borgiana the latter two of whom have rescued the site from a prolonged period of stagnation and supply articles on a daily basis. Even so, I was kept busy late last night and through today by, as you can probably guess, the TTC’s sudden strike.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 113 (amounting to 9000 drivers, maintenance workers and ticket collectors) have been in a legal strike position since April 1st, and a number of indications have been that morale at the TTC is quite low. This is the organization that was hit by an illegal wildcat strike over a year ago. However, the union and management reached a deal last week that many thought was generous to the union. Unfortunately, a numbers within the membership disagreed, and on Friday at 10 p.m., those workers combined to defeat ratification of the deal. TTC workers went out on strike just two hours later, at the stroke of midnight.

I believe in the right of workers to collectively organize, and I believe in the right of workers to strike. However, this does not stop me from commenting on the way ATU Local 113 exercised its right to strike. I would have had a lot of respect for them if they had retained the 48 hour notice. Even if they stayed on their shifts to the end of daily operations at 4 a.m., they would have spared the public a lot of inconvenience. Hundreds of people would not have been stranded downtown.

Yes, ATU Local 113 is perfectly within their rights to do what they did, but in terms of self interest, this act is a public relations disaster. It’s a big black eye for all public sector unions everywhere. By their actions, ATU Local 113 appear not to care one whit for the public interest. They have added fuel to the fire to the perception that they’re greedy layabouts (this, of course, is untrue, but many, many people are speaking in anger, and it’s not going well). They have handed Dalton McGuinty the public leverage to legislate workers back to work on a silver platter. They’ve certainly given a boost to the sentiment that public transit workers in Toronto should lose the right to strike by being declared an essential service.

It’s no hypocrisy in one who believes in collective bargaining to call the elements of ATU Local 113 idiotic in their approach to negotiations and in their dealings with the public. Transit activist and NDP supporter Steve Munro said it best on his blog when he said:

Little information leaked out from negotiations, but what did was not exactly useful in establishing a strong position for the union. As the deadline neared, we heard about how the poor underpaid Toronto members needed to be the best in the GTA. It didn’t take long for the press to find out that the actual difference between Toronto and Mississauga was five cents. Moreover, once Toronto got even the two percent originally offered by the TTC, they would leapfrog back into top spot.

We heard about sick pay for workers injured by assaults, and the clear indication was that the TTC addressed that one before the ink was dry on the press release. Then it turned out that Local 113 wanted full sick pay for any injured worker, but this took two weeks to come out. When challenged on this, Bob Kinnear said, in effect, “well, that TTC spokesman is wet behind the ears and didn’t know what he was talking about”. Oh? It took two weeks for the union to decide that the TTC was putting out misinformation?

Finally, we come to today’s vote. The story is that the maintenance workers felt they had lost protection about contracting out. Hmmm. If this was such a problem, and if some of the union executive couldn’t bring themselves to sign the agreement, why did it take until today for this news to surface. The maintenance workers are less than half of the total workforce, but clearly others voted to reject in support of them.

(Read more here)

I’m simply not buying the need for this strike, especially on such short notice. As a commentator on Spacing Toronto noted, GO Transit workers voted down a deal reached between union and management as well. They gave notice of a strike and returned to the bargaining table, and managed to hammer out a new deal that was approved by both sides without a strike.

But then, this assumes that a new deal could have been worked out between the union and management at the TTC, and I don’t think that was possible. Indeed, I have to wonder if the union is capable, at this point, of mounting a negotiation team that operates with the confidence of its membership (and we should note that negotiations that were forced today by the Ministry of Labour broke off without a settlement).

And it should be noted the whispers coming out of the union that Kinnear’s deal may have split the membership, by giving the operators what they wanted, but leaving maintenance workers in the cold. What is most intriguing about this strike is how it might reveal a power struggle within the ATU Local 113 executive. Certainly, I said that Bob Kinnear’s strike call smacked of a desperate move to play catch-up with his own membership. He negotiated a deal with the TTC management. He took it to his membership and appeared to recommend its approval. He then holed himself up and refused to speak to reporters as internal dissent grew. The rejection of the deal that Kinnear negotiated by 65% of the union membership wears on him like a rotten egg. I frankly doubt we’ll see him as ATU Local 113 president for much longer.

But all in all, it’s the unprofessional attitude taken by this executive, in giving the public scant notice of major disruption, of being unclear in communicating its goals and objections, and in giving every appearance of having a temper tantrum, that makes it very difficult for transit activists like myself, or supporters of the idea of public sector unions, to back their own positions. People within ATU Local 113 has set back the cause of public transit and union activism in this country, and for this, those responsible for this debacle at ATU Local 113 should be ashamed.

The final word goes to Steve Munro, who posted this reply to my comment on his blog:

I am going to look for the silver lining here. Based on the hopeless quality of “communications” between Kinnear, the media and the public, it is clear that he has a hard time articulating a position at the bargaining table, and that this position shifts with the wind.

The union would be well-served by someone who states clearly what they want, gives concrete examples with specific reference either to their own contract or to others, and demonstrates why the union’s position is a valid one.

All that Bob Kinnear has done is to waste the good will of all Torontonians on a pointless strike, and leave his own front line staff, the members he is oh so worrired about, to carry the can when, inevitably, service resumes.

From a public relations point of view, it would also do Local 113 good to have a public face that didn’t travel with a cadre of men in black who make the union look more like second-rate mafia wannabees than responsible representatives of their members.

Some members may think that this presents an image of strength. To me, it shows the weakness of a schoolyard bully.

Hear, here!

I suppose, at this point, I should weigh in on whether or not public transit in Toronto should be declared an essential service, thus removing the workers’ right to strike. My best advice at this point is for people making this call to step back and realize that they are speaking with angry hearts and not rational minds. Let’s get the workers back to work and service on the road, let’s wait at least a month for tempers to cool, and then let’s look at the idea objectively.

There are many good arguments to support making public transit an essential service in Toronto. While several leagues away from the essential nature of our police, fire and ambulance services, the disruptions of transit strikes do overload our road networks, costing us in congestion, in poorer air, and in suspended mobility for those who can least afford it. There would be a benefit in enacting such legislation, and removing the once-every-three-years scare of a TTC strike from our consciousness. But that benefit comes with a cost.

It is only fair that workers be allowed to negotiate with their employers for rates of pay that are acceptable to both sides. Anything else, and we violate the principles of the marketplace. So, if we suspend the workers’ right to strike, it’s only fair that we put into place some other means of resolving disputes and negotiating contracts. And more often than not this means binding arbitration.

In practise, binding arbitration increases the cost of the public sector, as both sides go to an arbitration board whose members are acceptable to both sides, they present their cases, and the arbitrators pick the most reasonable offers between the two. More often than not, they tend to side with the union. Also, with the whole negotiation process capped by a final resolution through arbitration that takes the responsibility away from both sides, neither side really has any reason to negotiate in good faith. Indeed, it’s for this reason that a number of union workers hate it. Though they might come out better financially in the end, they prefer the deal worked out through the give and take of the negotiation process.

And a month from now, the pressure to make the TTC an essential service will have ebbed. You know it will. Because most people only really notice public transit when it goes wrong. If this strike lasts two days, it will add up to three days of disruption (coupled with the wildcat strike a year ago) over a nine year period. In other words, it’s a hammer to crack a peanut that sticks in our craw for exactly 0.091% of the time, or a minute and eighteen seconds over a twenty-four hour period. Now do you see why such an act may be an overreaction?

And it wouldn’t solve the problems that are at the root of this strike, or the wildcat strike before it. There is something deeply dysfunctional about the TTC working environment if worker morale is that low. Even if we solve the strike “problem” by legislating strikes out of existence, this low morale is simply going to translate into crappy customer service. In many cases, it already has. Though I fear that it is unlikely that this will happen, we need a thorough investigation and shake-up of the working environment at the TTC, from the shop floor to the drivers seats to the department heads and the managers — something that will wipe the slate clean and allow us to start over again.

I have no idea what such a shake-up might entail, but anything else is just window dressing, and won’t give us the significant improvements in transit service that Torontonians deserve.

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