In the past week, the TTC board and City Council have voted to ask the Ontario government to make the TTC an “essential service”. During the debate, this action was opposed by both the TTC’s management and union on the grounds that this will only complicate labour negotiations. Issues will go to arbitration that might otherwise be bargained between the parties, and costs will increase through the typically higher wage settlements granted to workers who do not have the right to strike.
Those who favoured essential service status argued that this is, de facto, the way things work anyhow. When a transit strike occurs, it takes a few days, but the machinery of back-to-work legislation doesn’t take long to restore service. Why, then, endure the upheaval of a short work stoppage if legislated arbitration will be the result?
This is an attractive argument, except when one looks at the context. Toronto Council and the Mayor’s office has changed from the most pro-labour group any union could expect to see to an administration that makes little secret of its will to reduce the influence and effect of organized labour in Toronto. Got a problem with garbage workers? Privatize the service. Got a problem with transit workers? Make them “essential”.
Such actions may satisfy the urge to show the unions who is boss at City Hall, but they may not be the best policy for the city.
There is no question that the civic workers’ strike of 2009 was a turning point in Toronto politics. Not only was it a lengthy strike, but one which saw contentious relations between union members and the very people — the voters — those members needed to gain political support for their position. They failed miserably. Much was written about who “won” the strike, and the union managed to convince everyone that they came out on top even though they conceded on the key issue of future sick benefit payouts. The problem, at the end, was that voters endured a strike that seemed to have solved little (although the outgoing administration and city finance officials will tell you differently), and the voters were fed up.
Stir into this the wide perception that TTC workers are at odds with the people they serve. The “sleeping collector” front page [RIP] was not the Toronto Sun’s finest moment, but the photo and the anti-union sentiment it provoked cut right across the city. Relations between TTC staff and riders took on an “us vs them” feel that has reduced somewhat, but they remain less than ideal. Some operators, a few, really are jerks. Stories of buses held hostage while an operator claims harassment by a passenger still crop up.
Service on the street isn’t what it might be. We can always use more buses and streetcars, but there are enough cases of operators fouling up service that this minority can easily be blamed for many service problems.
All that said, making the TTC an “essential service” won’t improve manners among the rotten apples, and won’t make the Queen car or the Dufferin bus run on time. That takes an organizational will to provide service that’s as good as possible rather than always blaming problems on someone or something else.
The TTC and its new Chair, Councillor Karen Stintz, hopes to make Customer Service a top priority in the coming term. The TTC must regard its customers as vital, its raison-d’être, not as pesky travellers who need to be taught how to behave properly on transit vehicles. This is a question of attitude, not of labour negotiations. Indeed, the organizational culture isn’t only on one side of the bargaining table.
Finally, the problem will land back in Council’s lap with the inevitable call for better transit funding, if only to keep up with inflation, system growth and the inevitable wage increases arbitration will bring. How “essential” will transit be then?
The opportunity for a vindictive attack on transit workers and labour relations was probably the most “essential” part of this whole affair. The new regime had a chance for chest-beating and a quick win that will probably do little, on balance, to improve transit.
In coming months, we will hear budget debates at the TTC and at Council. Those who worship the holy grail of tax cuts will give long speeches about efficiency and belt-tightening, about how riders will have to make do with less service and higher fares, about how “the taxpayers” (as if they are not also transit users themselves) cannot be expected to bear a greater burden.
If transit really is essential to the economic health of Toronto, then Council must be prepared to spend and spend generously on this service as an investment in the city’s future. We will see just how “essential” transit is to our new Council when the bills come due.