Source: Bobolink / Robert Taylor, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More and more working class Torontonians are finding themselves late to work due to bus, streetcar and subway delays. The transit they need isn’t arriving and, when it does, the vehicles are packed.

TTC management has put the blame on the anti-vaxxers, sent home on unpaid leave. But that does not explain why management hasn’t been able to replace them. 

The new schedule: New, ‘temporary’ service cuts

On Nov. 21, the Toronto Transit Commission implemented its new “temporary schedule”—a 10 per cent service cut across the city.

Daytime subway service on Line 2 has been cut from every three to every four minutes. Peak service on the 7 Bathurst, 89 Weston, 86 Scarborough routes has been cut from under 10 minutes each to up to every 15 minutes. Worse, people who rely on the 50 Burnhamthorpe, 61 Avenue Road North, 10 Van Horne, 28 Bayview South, 49 Bloor West, 74 Mt. Pleasant, 78 St Andrews, 97 Yonge routes now have to wait up to 30 minutes instead of 15 minutes. 

TTCriders executive director Shelagh Pizey-Allen noted the cuts doubled wait times for key routes, just as temperatures dropped sharply. This hits lower-income workers, who overwhelmingly live outside of the subway line, hardest. 

What’s really behind the ‘labour shortage’?

The cuts were described by TTC CEO Rick Leary as “temporary reductions in scheduled service” and the unavoidable result of a “labour shortage”—placing the blame on unvaccinated employees. 

Roughly 2000 staff were threatened with unpaid leave and eventual termination for failing to disclose their vaccination status. On Oct. 27, management warned of service cuts “to protect the health and safety of all employees and the public who use the system daily” as it “works to ensure all employees are vaccinated.”

But these “temporary” reductions have no apparent end in sight.

Management claimed to have a “contingency plan” for a “hiring blitz” to replace unvaccinated workers. It takes roughly six weeks to train a TTC bus driver, factoring in divisional training. The TTC has been warning about this worker “shortage” since at least early October—more than six weeks ago. But the results of this “contingency plan” are nowhere to be seen.

The TTC is hiring, but it would seem no one is applying. Across sectors, after years of attacks and wage freezes, employers now express surprise that people are not lining up to apply.

The laws of supply and demand would suggest that if a job needs doing and too few are willing to do the job, after years of legislated wage freezes and contract work, the offer should improve. Yet, for all the talk about a TTC “hiring blitz”, management has yet to announce any plans to increase pay or improve conditions. 

Part of a pattern

Faced with a choice between cutting services or increasing workers’ pay, management eagerly leaped at the former.

This is part of a pattern. The TTC has faced service cuts and disrepair for decades, with parts of the transit line held together only by duct tape.  More recently, management has used the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to further attack workers and cut service.

In Spring 2020,  management responded to the pandemic with 1,200 layoffs, even though this would increase crowding on buses, streetcars and subways. Crowding makes social distancing and contact tracing effectively impossible.

In August 2021, TTCriders noted the system was only operating at 85 per cent service levels ahead of new, end-of-year service cuts. 

This was in keeping with the TTC’s May 2020 board report which committed the service to a “COVID-19 Cost Containment Strategy”, “pausing” staff salary increases, gradually cutting service to 80 per cent and reducing overtime. Through 2020, TTC’s board credited these cuts—or “cost containment” strategies—with millions in savings. Yet, headed into 2022, management has already committed to “reduce” service even further.

TTC CEO Rick Leary has made no promises to reverse past cuts, only to gradually “start replacing service reductions that may have been necessary.”

What’s the solution?

The media and TTC management have framed the issue as a choice between two largely unpleasant options: accept transit cuts or appease anti-vaxxers.

As we’ve explained before, workers who are not vaccinated put their coworkers and the working class people who rely on the TTC at risk.  But management’s cuts will make the problem worse.

The answer is a mass hiring campaign to ensure staffing is adequate to allow for regular service and social distancing. If management cannot find people to do the work, the union should be given control over hiring and training, with the resources paid for management in a union-run hiring hall.

More than one thousand TTC workers have been infected with COVID-19 to date. But management’s vaccine mandate has, generally, meant worse, and less-safe, service.

Throughout this crisis, TTC workers have shown their willingness to intervene to protect their health. They’ve led work refusals against PPE shortages, crowding and a lack of priority access to vaccines. Most workers want to protect their own health and the health of those around them.

A worker-controlled vaccine mandate could end management’s service cuts. It would also mean a campaign of education to win workers to the need to protect their own health and the health of those around them. Cutting across anti-vaccine conspiracy theories—promoted overwhelmingly by right-wing media—requires trust. 

As we’ve explained previously:

“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.”

Management has failed to guarantee adequate service and protect working class lives. But working class communities don’t have to choose between being infected with COVID-19 by an anti-vaxxer or being infected on crowded and unreliable transit.

A common interest

The same TTC management who mishandled hiring has overseen years of fare hikes, delays, ventilation and air conditioning failures and a general deterioration of the service. These managers are paid, fundamentally, to deliver “cost-savings” and “cost containment”—not transit. They’ve never worked as drivers or operators. They largely don’t depend on the TTC to get around and they aren’t impacted by these cuts. They are perfectly happy to make TTC riders and their own employees pay for the COVID-19 crisis.

Workers’ control means wresting the system away from managers who want to hike fares, cut service and leave the system to deteriorate. Transit workers, unlike TTC management, live in working class communities; they rely on public transit and they have a clear interest in keeping their communities safe.

Uniting the aims of transit workers and the wider working class who rely on public transit means fighting for a common program of jobs, decent pay, and full funding for regular, reliable service without fares. Workers’ control of transit is necessarily a step towards workers’ control of society.

With a socialist transit strategy, no one would be late for work as a result of service cuts. Transit workers would be paid well for their crucial work and given the power to protect themselves from the virus. Crowding, in turn, could be addressed by increasing the number of routes and vehicles available, across the whole system. Workers’ control is the solution.