Queen’s Park to make TTC an “Essential Service”

A flurry of media activity heralded the news that Queen’s Park introduced a bill making the TTC an “Essential Service” and thereby blocking strikes by its unionized groups.

I get a lot of questions on this subject and, wearing two hats, my position as an advocate for better public transit has, at times, a rather robust discussion with my support for labour rights.  Which takes precedence, and are they mutually exclusive concepts?

The political context for the Province’s move is quite simple.  Labour unrest and poor customer relations, real and perceived, in transit and in other municipal services led to demands that unions be restricted from interfering with city life.  The media did their bit by playing up what they thought were the bad apples, although the most prominent of their stories backfired (the “sleeping” collector who actually did have a health condition and has since died).  The antagonism on transit that followed was compounded with resentment from the garbage strike and the overall economic malaise.

We’ve come a few steps back from the brink thanks to some improvements in attitude on both sides, but there is still much to do.  The TTC as an organization hasn’t changed much, and the coming years’ transit cutbacks will only accentuate the problems in service reliability, vehicle crowding, failing equipment and contentious rider-operator relations.

The bad apples, be they union or management, get the publicity because it’s the fights people remember, that they post on Facebook, that they vent to call-in shows.  (Please don’t use this thread for your latest horror stories — the real issue is the larger context of how often, or not, such things may happen and what, if anything the TTC does about it.)

The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Grant has a profile of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113’s President, Bob Kinnear, in the February 26 issue.  Grant talks of the changes in Kinnear’s style from his early combative days, the period every new union leader goes through trying to prove himself, to a more balanced, less confrontational style trying to do the best for his members within a union-unfriendly political context.

So where do I stand?

Job actions on the TTC inevitably bring legislation and arbitration, and one can’t help wondering why we don’t just cut to the chase and prevent strikes in the first place.  That’s a simple answer, but it begs the question of how “essential” a service must be to warrant this intervention.  Will we have a general debate about who should have the right to withdraw services?  Why only the TTC?  What of the broader public sector?  In this coming age of privatization, should the private sector face the same sort of constraints and penalties?  Where is the line between actual danger to society at large and inconvenience?

An important factor with the TTC is that a simple “no overtime” decision by union staff would seriously affect service.  The TTC plans a great deal of rush hour service, and some off-peak operations, on the assumption that there will be operators willing to work overtime.  The premise is that the effective cost is lower, even at overtime rates, because the fixed cost of an operator (mainly training and benefits) are already paid.  For their troubles, union members are pilloried when they show up on the provincial “sunshine list”.

In a fiscal environment where “head count avoidance” takes precedence over common sense, overtime is way to minimize the total staff count and benefits while getting more work per employee.  In some circles, this is called “productivity”.  Of course, this bumps headlong into demands that overtime be reduced because it is seen as a waste by those who don’t understand the implications of what they ask.

If service on the road is erratic and overcrowded, if an operator spends their time arguing with riders, that’s not good transit service.  Poor morale can become ingrained, and transit continues its spiral into a last rather than a first choice for riders who have an option.  A no-overtime action guarantees that working conditions will worsen, and that’s really not in the front line staff’s interest.  The riders are hurt, but the politicians for whom transit is for “other people” may exploit the situation to press for a no-union and/or privatized arrangement.  The worse public sector services look, the better any alternative may appear.

Behind this debate is the question of labour-management relationships including the political context.  If prominent politicians rail against fat unions and lazy workers, this does not encourage productive bargaining.  Oddly enough, when unions complain about simplistic, blowhard politicians, such comments are portrayed as self-serving.

That term, “self-serving”, is at the heart of the relationship.  The public will either support the unions, or at least recognize problems of poor management and inadequate funding, or they will seize any opportunity to “put the unions in their place”.  Much of this depends on the day-to-day interactions between front line staff and riders, and it doesn’t take many horror stories to give the impression that TTC staff and “customer service” don’t belong in the same sentence.

From my own experience (and I know others who comment here will differ), the overwhelming majority of TTC staff are not grouchy, lazy curmudgeons.  Do they greet every passenger with a smile and a cheery “thanks for riding the TTC”?  No, and that would be rather difficult when you’re driving an already full King car that has left at least a carload of would-be riders at stops.  That’s a management, political and funding problem.  Management underplays the inadequacy of service, and many politicians don’t want to hear about the need for more money and better transit priority on streets.  They are too busy looking for that elusive gravy, or cooking up schemes to get those pesky transit vehicles off out of their way.

Will the Essential Service legislation work?  Well, it will save us the bother of having to recall the House if there’s a threat to transit service, but it won’t guarantee friendly relationships at the bargaining table or in day-to-day dealings between management, the unions and riders.

Should management exercise their rights to manage?  Definitely.  The fastest way to encourage bad actors is to do nothing, and failure to manage, to call employees on the carpet when it’s deserved, is a fast way to losing control of an organization.  This is one of the first thing any manager learns (or should learn).  But that management must be fair and consistent, and should not to seek to blame staff for the shortcomings of the organization.

I have written here before about “TTC culture” and its deep roots in the premise that the TTC is always right.  That showed up in the “customer service” panel’s report last year, and it’s a day-to-day feature where the concept of “harassment” is a catch-all response to the public, a response condoned and at times encouraged by management.  That sort of attitude must change at the corporate and political levels.

No legislation will transform the TTC top-to-bottom.  Essential Service status will, for a time, satisfy the blood lust in some political circles, but it is the active co-operation and good will of labour, management and politicians that will keep good service on the streets.

41 thoughts on “Queen’s Park to make TTC an “Essential Service”

  1. “Moving the issue beyond the TTC, this legislation is an attack on democracy.”

    Personally I would argue that while this may be true in theory, it is a much smaller attack than the current position of the union, having a legal right to strike but having it taken away moments later on a supposedly one time basis each time they use it. In fact, while I agree with everything that has been said about the cost of the legislation on balance I support it for this reason. If we aren’t going to make them an essential service I honestly think that we need to accept that they can, and likely will (though hopefully not as often…) strike from time to time. We are trying to have it both ways, and it just doesn’t work.


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