Source: Can Pac Swire/Flickr

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has been embroiled in controversy recently over the attempt to implement a vaccine mandate for its workforce. Mandates are currently being implemented in workplaces all across the country, and are a part of overall efforts to end the pandemic and ensure workers’ health and safety. The bosses’ track record on pandemic prevention to date, however, has been negligent at best, and criminal at worst. Workers, as a result, have good reason to be mistrustful over the bosses’ control of the entire process. Unions have found it difficult to navigate the competing pressures inherent in this issue. The case of TTC workers, unionized with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113, shows the danger of a one-sided approach by union leaders simply opposing management without proposing any alternative in its place.

A history of mismanagement 

TTC management under CEO Rick Leary has a long track record of anti-worker policy and general mismanagement of the public transit system that is beyond the immediate scope of this discussion. Limiting the conversation to specific pandemic-related mismanagement, however, does not require one to go far. What would be laughable were it not so tragic, to begin with, is the fact that in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, the TTC had a standing policy of not allowing its workers to wear masks at work. This was only reversed in March 2020 in response to a growing wave of work refusals over this fundamental right. Inadequate provision of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) afterwards led to more work refusals, culminating in a mass refusal on Apr. 15, 2020 involving dozens of workers.

Leary also dragged his heels when it came to the question of implementing measures on transit vehicles to protect drivers, such as eliminating cash fares and allowing rear-door boarding only. To his credit, ATU 113 President Carlos Santos was the first to propose these measures, which management eventually relented on. Any progress made from this, however, was more than negated by a service reduction and temporary layoff of 1,200 drivers announced shortly thereafter, in late April 2020. This would make it virtually impossible to ensure proper social distancing on vehicles, endangering both the transit-riding public and drivers in the process. To date, four TTC workers have died of complications related to COVID-19 and over 1,000 more have been infected.

Enter the vaccine mandate

One can understand, in light of the above, why TTC workers would not have the greatest faith in Leary’s ability to oversee the implementation of a vaccine mandate in the interests of the health and safety of the entire workforce. The issue is far from straightforward, however. While the vast majority of TTC workers are vaccinated (which compliance rates have subsequently shown), there is a very small minority who are anti-vaccine, as well as a vaccine-hesitant layer in between. An education-centred approach could certainly win over many of these middle layers, with discipline only being used as a last resort for the most hardcore of anti-vaxxers who willfully put others in danger. The TTC’s approach, however, has been the opposite. Leary has made it clear that those who do not provide proof of vaccination by a certain date will be put on unpaid leave, and eventually terminated, with education serving at most as an afterthought in the process.

The approach of the ATU 113 union leadership on this question has been even worse, unfortunately. An Aug. 19 statement issued by Santos asserted that “Local 113 supports the right of every member of Local 113 to make their own informed decisions about their personal health matters, including vaccination. We oppose mandatory vaccination of Local 113 members.” Santos went on to encourage all TTC workers, regardless of their vaccination status, to refuse to disclose their status. While well-intentioned, this is an entirely reactionary statement in its context of pandemic prevention efforts and far-right anti-vax organizing.

In general, protecting the individual rights of workers against management aggression and arbitrariness is a basic but important function of trade unions. There are certain situations, however, where the rights of individuals come into contradiction with the rights of the collective as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic is exactly one such case. We should not forget the TTC workers who have died due to workplace infection. Forcing vaccinated workers to work alongside unvaccinated workers increases the likelihood of spread of the virus, and is a direct danger to the health and safety of all.

By blindly defending the individual rights of a handful of anti-vaxxers in the union, Santos found himself on a slippery slope in a right-wing direction. This led Santos so far as planning to appear at a news conference with former Conservative MPP Roman Baber in support of a private members’ bill against vaccine mandate disciplinary measures, before withdrawing at the last minute.

What could have been done?

Trade unions were not founded on the basis of merely defending the rights of individuals, but rather, on promoting the collective strength of workers in struggle. Santos’ instruction to ATU 113 members to refuse to submit their vaccine records to TTC management led to only 31.5 percent of the membership disclosing their vaccination status. This forced management to extend the original deadline an extra two months. Such a response indicates the extent to which rank-and-file ATU workers are sick and tired of the dictates of management, and inspired by the call to resist Leary’s latest top-down mandate. If this call had been driven by a political demand for workers’ control over implementation of the vaccine mandate and other measures to limit infection, rather than opposition to any mandate whatsoever, the struggle could have gone in a progressive direction. 

If refusal to disclose was combined with demands such as increasing service to ensure no bus is filled beyond 50 per cent safe capacity, it would be enthusiastically supported by workers and riders, and would give the movement a left-wing rather than a right-wing anti-vax content. Instead, being faced with the reality of threats of an illegal job action and large fines imposed by the provincial government, and not being prepared to organize any actual job action, Santos backed down and instructed members to comply with the mandate.

In the end, the whole episode was a debacle. But it could have gone differently had the demand for workers’ control been embraced. What is workers’ control? It is nothing other than the natural response of workers to the mismanagement of the bosses. Earlier in the pandemic, for example, when Leary failed to secure priority access to vaccines for the frontline workforce, a handful of rank-and-file workers took matters into their own hands. Working with NDP MP Doly Begum, they managed to secure access for one division of bus drivers first, then another, and then ultimately for everyone else. This kind of spontaneous initiative from below, combined with leadership from the top of the workers’ mass organizations, is exactly the combination which can produce results.

A worker-controlled vaccine mandate would place education at the forefront. Unions could organize teams of volunteers workplace by workplace, having peers patiently explain to vaccine-hesitant layers the dangers of remaining unvaccinated, both for themselves and for all those around them. Workers’ control of health and safety would make sure that management could not use mandates to victimize those they want to get rid of. Workers could separate the truths from the mistruths about the vaccines, while at the same time criticizing the giant pharmaceutical corporations for their greed, advancing a demand to nationalize and remove the profit motive from production and distribution of vaccines in future.

Fully fund public transit under workers’ control!

Beyond the vaccine mandate, there really is a compelling case to put the entire TTC under democratic workers’ control. Management over the past period has been obsessed with attacking its own unionized workforce, often directly at the expense of the quality and reliability of the transit service they are supposed to provide. Where they have spent money, it has just as often been to create new managerial positions in order to better police the workers as it has been to improve service. Rank-and-file TTC workers know best how to effectively and efficiently run the system; without them not a wheel would ever turn! In this context, why should they not have the ultimate say over how, when and where these wheels turn in the city?

There is an elephant in the room in all this discussion, however. Even if the workers were given control over the running of TTC operations, there is the reality that public transit has been chronically underfunded for decades now. The pandemic has brought this funding crisis to a whole new level, as plummeting ridership has exposed all the flaws of fare-dependent transit. As a result, the demand for workers’ control must be combined with a demand for full funding of transit from all levels of government. As a starting point, the $1.3 billion in pandemic emergency funding provided to the TTC by the provincial and federal governments to date must be expanded and made permanent going forward. To pay for this, giant bailout-dependent transportation companies like Bombardier and Air Canada should be expropriated and have their profits incorporated as a part of a national transit strategy to provide high-quality air, ground and rail transport for the population all across the country. Only on the basis of such a strategy can the public transit crisis in Canada be meaningfully and sustainably resolved.