Canada: Toronto transit system avoids essential service designation

Earlier this month the Executive Committee of the Toronto municipal government voted 8–1 against a motion asking the Government of Ontario to strip the city’s 9,000 transit workers of their right to strike and make the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) an “essential service.”  The motion had been sponsored by four right-wing city councilors and had received support from several business organizations, as well as from numerous local and national newspapers and talk-radio hosts. 

The demand to designate the TTC an essential service arose in the wake of last April’s 36-hour, weekend shutdown of the transit system by Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). The strike was precipitated by the memberships’ massive repudiation of a tentative contract settlement that had been recommended by both the majority of the union’s bargaining committee and Toronto Mayor David Miller and his allies on city council.

In the run-up to the strike, Liberal Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty had made no secret of the fact that he would not only quickly draft punitive back-to-work legislation, but that he would favourably consider more permanent restrictions on transit workers’ right to strike. Said McGuinty, “If there was some kind of approach made within the course of the next three years by the City of Toronto…saying we have decided ourselves that it would be a good thing for us to have our public transit system essential, that is something that we, at Queen’s Park, would have to consider.”

The hue and cry whipped up by the mainstream press and broadcasters was particularly virulent in the aftermath of the work stoppage. The Globe and Mail urged that TTC workers be permanently stripped of the legal right to strike and the liberal Toronto Star went on record to say that such a step should be given serious consideration. As would be expected, the neo-conservative National Post railed against the striking transit workers with Robert Fulford, purportedly one of Canada’s leading “men of letters,” headlining a column “This is why we hate unions.” While supporting the back-to-work law, the Post argued that the real “solution” is not a permanent legal ban on transit strikes, but to increase the “competitive pressure” on TTC workers by breaking the TTC’s monopoly on public transit through contracting-out and privatization.

The cynical manner in which ATU Local 113 President Bob Kinnear called the strike only gave grist to the right-wing campaign. Weakened by a rebellious membership, and seeking to isolate opponents within his own executive, Kinnear reneged on a promise to the general public that he would provide 48 hours’ notice before any job action was initiated. In fact, he provided little more than an hour’s notice to his own members and even less to the general public. Tens of thousands of commuters were stranded when workers were ordered to shut down the system at midnight on a Friday.

Kinnear’s actions were not part of a strategy aimed at mobilizing transit workers and the working population of Toronto against the systematic attack on workers’ wages and working conditions and public and social services that big business and its political hirelings have mounted over the past quarter century. Rather they were intended to discipline a rebellious rank-and-file by facilitating back-to-work legislation and thereby “proving” the impossibility of mounting a struggle and winning a settlement better than the pact that Kinnear and his allies within the ATU bureaucracy had negotiated.

No picket lines were organized or mass meetings called. Nor was there a campaign launched by the union to put across the positions of the membership. Indeed, Kinnear all but disappeared from the public scene after calling the action.  It was as if the union bureaucrat was saying to his membership, “OK. So, you wanted a strike.  Now you got one. Deal with it.”  A day and a half later, the strikers were ordered back to work by the McGuinty government with the full support of the opposition Conservatives and the social democrats of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Mayor Miller, who is close to the NDP, then fanned the demagogy against the TTC workers by himself suggesting that their right to strike should be placed under review.

Two weeks ago, the arbitrator assigned to adjudicate the contract dispute under the back-to-work order handed down his binding decision. Kevin Burkett ruled that the contract initially agreed to by the union and the TTC should stand with only one minor adjustment—the awarding of an additional ten cents per hour to skilled trades workers.  It was this section of the workforce that had voted most heavily against the original deal.  The three-year imposed contract also calls for a 3 percent across-the-board wage increase which will allow TTC drivers to earn a maximum of $29.05 per hour at its expiration.

Immediately after Burkett’s ruling, Councilor Adam Giambrone, an ally of Mayor Miller and Chair of the TTC, signaled that the coalition of councilors around Miller would vote against the essential services resolution when it came before the Mayor’s Executive Committee. “The award suggests you don’t need essential services legislation if the parties can reach a fair deal on their own,” said Giambrone. “Essential services presumes a premium for people giving up their rights”.

Of course, “fairness” is the furthest thing from the minds of Giambrone and his colleagues in City Hall. TTC management backed by both an internal study and a report from the right wing C.D. Howe Institute “think tank” have argued that costs can be best kept down and industrial actions avoided by continuing to work with the union via traditional collective bargaining channels. They are fully aware of the role that the trade union bureaucracy plays in this process in working with management to suppress the demands of their own membership, as Kinnear so amply demonstrated not only last spring, but even more recently in the strike of Viva bus drivers in the nearby York Region.

The 170 Viva bus drivers, also members of ATU Local 113, ignominiously ended a sixteen-day strike earlier this month—a strike that erupted when they too rejected a contract that had been recommended by the union leadership. Kinnear had let it be known that should the Viva drivers not reconsider and accept the rejected tentative contract, they would be forced to mount a lengthy strike in isolation and with only nominal union support. The ultimate settlement, effectively a carbon copy of the contract the Viva workers had previously rejected, failed to adequately address a situation where drivers receive little or no sick pay, but are nonetheless required to produce expensive doctors’ notes when they miss work for health reasons. Viva drivers are amongst the lowest paid in the Greater Toronto Area. At the end of the new contract they will stand to earn just $21.35 per hour.

Clearly, those calculating budgetary expenses for union wages in the City of Toronto are able to discern who their true friends and allies are.

The C.D. Howe Institute report to Miller’s Executive Council contended that “essential” service workers have received higher settlements from labour arbitrators than have workers whose contracts are determined by collective bargaining. It went on to claim that had the TTC already been designated an essential service, and the current contract decided by an arbitrator, TTC workers might be set to earn $23 million or 13 percent more than they will under the life of the new three-year contract. The internal management study, although somewhat more restrained, estimated that an arbitrated deal under essential services legislation would cost the city an additional $11 million. Both reports also noted that designating a service “essential” does not guarantee an end to labour disruptions. Absenteeism, work-to-rule campaigns, wildcat actions and other protests are all weapons that can be deployed by workers dissatisfied with their treatment.

The decision to reject the resolution calling for an essential services designation still must go before the full City council at the end of the month.  However, after councilors have been given time to fulminate against the “greedy and selfish” workforce for the evening news cameras, it appears that Miller will have more than enough votes to put the matter finally to rest.

This episode comes as no surprise to the World Socialist Web Site. Almost six months ago we wrote, “Even before Mayor Miller had referred the essential services motion for study by his Executive Council, city bureaucrats and political warhorses alike were advising politicians against hasty action. The eventual decision on whether to designate the TTC an essential service will have nothing to do with democratic principles and everything to do with deciding on what is the best strategy for suppressing the wages and gutting the working conditions of city workers, while ensuring that the trains and buses run on time.”