Over 600 transit workers in the York Region area have been on strike since October 24th, 2011, affecting 85 bus routes. For nine weeks, these workers have been fighting with a host of private contractors operating the York Region Transit (YRT) services, to get better wages and working conditions. Throughout the labour dispute, these transit workers, organized in the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) locals 113 and 1587, have pointed to the fact that they are far underpaid compared to their counterparts in neighbouring jurisdictions.
The workers are taking their fight to the private operators of the YRT, which include VIVA, Miller Tranist, and Students First. These companies post significant profits, and yet have been unwilling to seriously bargain with these workers who are seeking to close the gap in wages between themselves and transit workers in other municipalities. For example, multinational firm Veolia, which owns VIVA Transit, posted close to $600-million in profits last year and has assets worth over $50-billion across the world. The root cause of the strike is the inequality of the bosses collecting obscene profits on the backs of their underpaid and overworked staff.
The strike has naturally been a big inconvenience for many transit riders, with 60% of transit services in York Region currently affected. Many young people and students are particularly hard hit, as public transit is often the only way to get around in the suburbs for the many people who do not own a car. Likewise, striking workers and their families are struggling to pay their bills since the strike began.
The bosses have little regard for the impact the strike is having on transit users. Thus far, the employers have not been willing to come to the table and negotiate on the key issues being raised by the workers. The corporate strategy, thus far, has been to wait-it-out, hoping that transit workers will eventually be starved back to work, and to wage a fierce media war to convince transit riders to blame the union for the inconvenience.
The ambivalence of the bosses wouldn’t be surprising to the many riders who have been struggling with huge transit fare hikes in York Region. However, the YRT media campaign has tried to convince riders that those transit fare hikes are the result of “unreasonable” demands by workers, suggesting that meeting the demands of bus drivers would cause further fare hikes. This attempt to divide and conquer is misleading (and will be elaborated upoon).
This offensive has not been limited to media. The YRT has pursued court injunctions against the picket lines set up by workers. It must be said that for several weeks into the strike, the workers did not even set up picket lines. They hoped that the employer would come to the bargaining table without the need for disruptive tactics. Instead of taking this as a cue to bargain in good faith, the employers have taken this as a sign of weakness and have pressed forward to attack the union. Many bus drivers will remember the 2008 VIVA strike, which ended in defeat for the workers with none of the key demands being met.
This highlights an important point — only escalating tactics can win against the profit-interests of big business bent on denying workers decent wages and benefits. These companies are not trying to come to an agreement. Only the strength of the rank-and-file can win this fight.
Workers need to rely on direct action, picket lines, and disruptions to transit services as the only way to show the bosses that the workers mean business. Labour cannot rely on government arbitration or the courts to defend their rights and benefits. The recent examples at Canada Post and Air Canada show how arbitration can often backfire for workers. As workers, we must depend upon our own strength to decide our fate, not some outsider who has much more in common with the bosses and politicians.
There is also a pressing need for the ATU locals to connect with the broader working class, and with youth. This is true not only of the ATU, but other unions as well, which have found it difficult connecting and building solidarity with workers who are non-unionized. In this age of austerity, a defeat by one section of the working class can embolden the ruling class to attack other sectors of workers. Working class solidarity — amongst both unionized and unorganized workers — is more important than ever before. The attempt by the press and the YRT to divide transit users against unionized workers is clear evidence of how the bosses wish to divide the working class. The YRT clearly has little regard for transit users, and has approved skyrocketing transit fares. The labour movement has an obligation to champion the issues affecting all workers.
This means that ATU locals 113 and 1587 should be raising demands that serve the needs of all workers in York Region. A concrete demand, which connects the issues of transit fare hikes and low wages, is to fight for a massive increase in funding to public transit, to expand the quality of services, abolish transit fares, and to provide workers with a decent wage.
The bus drivers have been waging a brave and important struggle against profit-driven and wealthy business owners who are bent on continuing to underpay these workers and gouging the pockets of commuters. Support transit workers in their fight for a fair deal!
End privatization and fund public transit now!
Many transit riders are naturally angry that their transit services are disrupted. Many thousands depend on transit to get to work or to school. Working class people, and young people in particular, are hard hit. In the suburbs, almost everybody is a commuter, yet for many, owning a car is unaffordable.
Unfortunately, present transit options are unaffordable and services are inadequate, with wait times of 30 minutes to an hour being the norm for many people.
YRT-operated services have risen in cost significantly over the last seven years. When the author of this piece first became a regular commuter during secondary school in York Region, in 2004, the cost of an adult fare was $2.25. That cost has risen to $3.25, and is set to increase to $3.50 in 2012. A monthly pass cost $74 in 2004, and has now risen to $115. This increase amounts to an additional $492 taken from the pockets of regular commuters every year. This makes York Region Transit the most expensive transit system for riders in all of Canada!
Rising transit fees bite into the pocket of working people. Young people carrying record student debts and facing rising unemployment and low-paying employment, are particularly hard hit. Seniors, often on fixed-incomes, are shown little reprieve either.
There has been a general trend towards fee hikes and service reduction as provincial and federal government have downloaded the responsibility for public transit onto municipalities. Municipalities are unable to raise the funds to properly maintain them. Essentially, the bill is passed onto working class people, both riders and transit workers.
In York Region, they have decided to privatize the YRT, through a private-public partnership, as a solution. As we have seen, private contractors only care about maximizing their profits, which they often accomplish through cuts to service, raising fares, and paying low wages to their employees (which has forced workers out on strike). Privatization is an attack on all workers, and only serves to bloat the pockets of wealthy businessmen.
In Toronto, right-wing mayor Rob Ford’s solution has been to carry out a massive cut to TTC services, raise fares, and taking away workers’ right to strike. The fact is that the TTC is massively underfunded, with 80% of operating costs being covered through transit fares. This is an absurd way to run public transit, and represents one of the lowest ratios of public funding of any major city in North America.
The fundamental issues at stake, in building a healthy transit system, is public ownership and public funding. There needs to be a massive increase to funding for public transit, through a national transit program. All private contracts should be revoked immediately, and the profits that would otherwise pay for the luxuries of business executives should be re-invested into public transit.
The bosses and their allies in government and the corporate media love to tell us that there is no money to pay for an expansion of public transit. To this, we say, instead of $30-billion of corporate tax cuts, instead of $30-billion for fighter jets, instead of $30-billion for fighter ships, instead of the roughly $20-billion spent on the brutal occupation of Afghanistan, and instead of the $9-billion spent on expanding the prison system (despite ever decreasing crime rates), why don’t we spend a fraction of all that money to fund public transit, expand service, and make it completely free for everyone to use? Government should not be spending our tax dollars and giving handouts to big corporations (such as Veolia, which caused this strike). We need a government that prioritizes the interests of workers, pensioners, and young people, rather than the interests of big banks and corporations.
Public transit is a pressing need for millions of Canadians. Such a public transit system would not only benefit riders; it would also be a significant step forward in addressing environmental issues. By making public transit actually work, i.e. expanding routes, eliminating fees, and increasing service, many would choose to use it over driving cars. This would also address the issues of pollution and smog that reduce the quality of life and health of residents, and that also contributes to the pressing issue of climate change.
There is more than enough money in Canada to fund public services and give transit workers good wages.
Victory to York Region transit workers!
Fund public transit! For free public transit!
For the unity of union and non-union workers!