It is currently estimated that roughly 25 percent of the subway cars on the Bloor-Danforth Line Two are 'hot cars', meaning that due to the failure of the vehicle's heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, passengers suffer from temperatures as high as 33°C while the cars are in service. Why are we in this hot mess? A look behind the curtain reveals that this is only the latest manifestation of the broader crisis within public transit as well as within the system as a whole.
As of late, it has become a rite of passage for commuters riding on Line Two to play what we might call the 'daily hot car shuffle'. Upon arrival into a station, in addition to the usual exchange of passengers getting on and off, there has now been the quite regular exodus of individuals moving from one car to the next, in order to escape the sweltering misery of travelling in a hot car. Most regular riders, being better acquainted with this shell game than they would like to be, end up on the last cars of the train. These cars typically do have air conditioning because the operators that drive the trains would otherwise rightly refuse to sit in them for hours on end for basic health and safety reasons. However, it has not been unheard of for entire halves of trains, end cars included, or for as many as five of the six cars in a train to have defective HVAC units! In these cases, you can imagine our intrepid hot car shufflers, having reached the end car of a train after shuffling through two cars previously, only to find that it was also hot, relinquishing themselves to a seat and wallowing in their own sweat for the remainder of the ride.
Of the approximately 80 T1 model subway cars which currently suffer from a lack of air conditioning, TTC spokesperson Susan Sperling assured us that the defective HVAC units will be replaced and that "by next year, everything should be fine." But is it as simple as this? Is it possible that 80 HVAC units out of a fleet of 370 could suddenly fail in a single summer without prior precedent, and that the solution would be as simple as putting in an order for 80 new HVAC units to be installed for the following summer? In another interview the TTC's head of rail cars and shops, Raffaele Trentadue, disclosed the actual scope of the issue when he revealed that the actual availability of replacement HVAC units and parts is very limited, suggesting that the solution to the problem may not just be around the corner. But is this all?
Brad Ross, Executive Director of TTC Communications, explained that the failures are due to the age of the trains and the extreme heat outside that cause the units to be overworked. The hot cars cannot be taken out of service because there are simply not enough otherwise functional cars in the fleet to keep up with service on the line on a day to day basis. Aside from the longer term plan to replace the defective HVAC units, the most immediate solution that has been pursued to date has been to reset the units at night when they are parked in the yard after they come off the main line. As a measure that is akin to rebooting a computer, the hope is that these resets kick start the system back into functionality for a time. However, maintenance workers report that the flip side of this is that this tactic may only exacerbate the problem in the long run, as the constant resetting of the unit may cause its electrical circuits to progressively deteriorate.
The Root of the Problem
The ongoing regime of preventative maintenance of the HVAC units that has been in place for some time now seems to be at the heart of the issue. To this extent, Trentadue admitted that "the TTC is working to introduce better practices for the maintenance and cleaning of currently functioning systems as it works to stave off additional problems." In this regard, there is no doubt that subway mechanics, analyzers and technicians are at work diligently, devising creative solutions within given constraints that spring from the intimate familiarity they acquire through working with the equipment and technology on a daily basis. The problem, however, has been that these efforts have been and continue to be hampered by an upper-management approach that is fixated on the bottom line, rather than actually getting the job done.
Under the leadership of CEO Andy Byford, the TTC has for years now attempted to solve the problem of inadequate government funding by bringing the axe down on its most precious resource - its workers. The elimination of jobs through contracting out entire sections of the workforce has been pursued repeatedly, and while there has been a moratorium on any further privatization while the current collective bargaining agreement is in effect, Byford has expressed publically his vision and anticipation of a future in which automation technology will allow him to eliminate hundreds if not thousands of driving and fare collection jobs.
Such a hostile approach of management towards the workers is a typical feature of the capitalist system we live under. However, it is under the current crisis of the system on a world scale that this feature is being accentuated and intensified on a scale that has not been seen since the 1930s or the 1970s. In the sphere of the public sector, the crisis is manifested in the first place in terms of an ongoing inability to balance government budgets. This comes as the result of declining revenues, on the one hand, from record low corporate tax rates and the effects of economic slump, and on the other, as the result of increased expenditures from the massive bailouts that are handed out to the largest banks and corporations deemed 'too large to fail'. The resulting budget crises are then capitalized on by these same capitalists and their cronies in the corporate media, as the government is compelled to sell off some of the most lucrative sections of the public sector (e.g. Hydro One, Toronto Hydro, Toronto Parking Authority, the L.C.B.O, etc.) to profitable private investment, while subsidizing the losses. In this process, top government bureaucrats and politicians more often than not seem all too willing to facilitate these schemes, to the chagrin of the majority of the population that they are supposed to be accountable to.
By attempting to place the burden of budget crises on the backs of its workers (and of course also on its passengers, through fare increases), TTC management has made an already bad situation worse. The consequences of this approach in regards to the current crisis of hot subway cars in particular has meant that there is (a) inadequate staffing of key maintenance worker positions necessary to work on the problem and (b) an unwillingness to pay the overtime necessary to get the job done. Concretely speaking, there may be any number of skilled workers available to work on the defective HVAC units on any given night; however, a lack of staffing of the more basic positions of moving the subway cars from the yard to the repair bay and so forth means these mechanics are forced to fill in for these jobs which are essentially a waste of their creative energies.
For Workers' Control of the Workplace!
The workers know best how to make things move. They have the best creative insights into the nature of their work and how to carry it out in the most efficient manner because they are closest to it. Despite this, their initiative is frequently stifled because it has to go through so many layers of middle and upper management in order to get implemented, through managers who are often more interested in furthering their own careers than in providing the best service possible. If the workers were collectively able to decide what to do and how to do it, and had the necessary resources at their fingertips, crises such as that of the present would be a thing of the past.
It is worth saying that there is nothing wrong with having individuals in positions of authority and directorship in the workplace. To the contrary, leadership is essential to any collective undertaking. However, these individuals should be drawn from the ranks of the workers and be subject to democratic election (and recall, if necessary). Moreover, there should be no material privileges or incentives associated with taking on the position, and therefore they should not be paid more than the wages of a skilled worker.
Such a regime of workers' control does not fall from out of the sky, however. As the history of experiences of workers' control demonstrates, it has historically developed organically as a byproduct of the broader class struggle against the bosses' agenda and in particular in response to the bosses' attempts to shut down production and lock the workers out in periods of economic slump. Due to the fact that it represents a form of workers' power which challenges the very foundations of capitalist production, episodes of workers’ control have mostly been short lived unless they have taken place within the context of a broader movement to eliminate capitalism and replace it with a socialist plan of production based on democratic workers' control and management. Therefore, a good starting point in its pursuit would be to join the fight back against capitalist austerity and the bosses' agenda and link this to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.