In which we attempt to untangle the incredible mess that is the York Region Transit strike
As the York Region transit strike moves into its third week, commuters are facing extra-long travel times and feeling frustrated and confused about what is both causing and drawing out the transit mess. With a privatized system that includes three contractors with multiple divisions, two unions, and general management provided by York Region itself to oversee nine towns and cities, bureaucracy is in greater supply than clarity. Our efforts to investigate the transit walkout crashed headlong into sharply contrasting narratives, bitter acrimony, refusals to comment, and an ongoing dispute over the meaning of the term “sick day.”
There are at least a few basic points upon which everyone involved in this dispute can agree: That York Region Transit is the result of a 2001 amalgamation of municipal services, where the region decided to maintain the separate transit services it was bringing together through multiple private companies. That cycles of service renewal currently have those transit systems provided by First Canada, Veolia Transport, and Miller Transit. Veolia itself provides both the wider Viva bus service and the general YRT routes called the Southwest Division as separate branches.
The disparate groups of workers the companies employ are represented by two unions, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 and 1587. York Region Transit itself serves in a predominantly managerial role over the companies they evaluate. This patchwork collection is why 40 per cent of YRT’s routes are still in service, with Southwest Division employees having had their own distinct contract negotiations with Veolia back in February 2011. Each group of workers is treated as a discrete body, with union representatives negotiating for them separately with their respective employers.
Everyone also agrees that this can be incredibly confusing. Union reps and YRT customer service alike have spent time talking to frustrated commuters and explaining the structure of York Region Transit, that negotiations happen across multiple divisions, and why some workers are on strike but not others. “That’s one of the problems up in York Region, the complexity of negotiations, because you do have four different groups that provide transit in York region,” says Bob Kinnear, president of Local 113, on the multi-part structure.
From there, we descend into spin.
For the unions, their views on the state of their wages, high taxpayer subsidies, and low bids for service contracts are a recipe for sky-high profits for the companies and budgetary windfalls for the region. “They starve their drivers to death,” said Ray Doyle, president of Local 1587. YRT management disagrees, saying they don’t know where the unions are getting those profit margins. “I don’t have a 65 million dollar surplus,” said YRT general manager Richard Leary, commenting on some of the union’s figures.
The unions decry YRT workers’ $22-per-hour salary, $7 less than many of their GTA counterparts receive, as shameful. Maureen Richmond, director of media relations at First Canada, points to current economic conditions making the increase they offered to that salary “fair and equitable.” YRT management acknowledges the standout taxpayer subsidy rate that comes to around $4 per ride. They maintain that with daily ridership numbers in the tens of thousands compared to a million-plus in Toronto, the subsidy is necessary to cover costs. “York Region Transit provides service to a much larger area, to nine cities and towns, not just one city,” said Leary on additional costs and difficulties.
As for the negotiations that staggered, stalled, and broke down, the narratives don’t so much compete as go to war. Both union and company reps start by pointing to the deal reached in February 2011 between Local 113 and Veolia for the workers in the Southwest Division. Among its central points was a salary increase of 5 per cent over two years. “We had just organized and negotiated a first contract,” said Kinnear, explaining that the union viewed the Southwest package as appropriate to an initial deal. With all the other divisions far more established, across multiple cycles of contract negotiations, they view the February 2011 deal as a basis on which to build. “This is the third contract for this group,” said Kinnear, speaking of one of the divisions Local 113 represents in the current strike.
Veolia’s director of corporate communications, Valerie Michael, argues that the February deal wasn’t just the basis for recent negotiations, it was what the unions specifically requested. “They asked for the Southwest package,” said Michael, referring to it as her company’s “best and final offer”—an offer she alleges the unions functionally rejected. She elaborates that even the February deal had to be forced on the union reps by their workers. “Some of the drivers found out about the proposal and took a petition to union leaders to re-vote on the package.”
Kinnear derides the accounts of both the February 2011 and recent negotiations as “pure bullshit.” He argues that the current deal in no way resembled even the contract Southwest workers received when company negotiators stated it was their final offer regardless and that workers were left with no choice but to strike.
Compounding problems is a process that boils down to four separate negotiation efforts for each branch of YRT services, between one of the two unions and a different corporate division. All involved acknowledge this could result in multiple different settlements should all parties return to the negotiating table someday. At the same time, while stating that they are focusing on their own negotiations, companies do keep in touch. “I have conversations with my counterparts at Veolia,” said Richmond. Kinnear goes further, saying the companies are in active communication with each other for the negotiations, just like the union reps are.
YRT management itself continues to try to stay above the animosity of the strike, above any involvement at all. They note that they have no power over the negotiations, owing to the privatized nature of the system. “We don’t want to overstep our boundaries. We respect our contractors, we respect our workers,” said Leary. He added that YRT cannot comment on negotiations by companies or unions; all they can do is hope all parties come together to reach an agreement.
The unions find YRT management’s claims to non-involvement insulting. Doyle accuses them of wanting “all the control without the liability,” noting that the YRT will instruct companies on hiring, firing, training, and employee ratios. Union representatives believe that as the municipal authority that holds these contracts, people at YRT have the leverage to involve themselves—they just choose not to. “It is the region that is ultimately responsible. They’re the ones that made the decision to hire these contractors. We would like to see them speak out publicly against these contractors and encourage some of these contractors to relinquish some of their profits, to ensure that employees of York Region, which could be argued are the council’s employees, are treated fairly,” said Kinnear.
The companies, by contrast, maintain YRT has little say in how they operate the bus services beyond evaluating the outline they provide for doing so. “They do have to leave the contracts to us,” said Michael. YRT management agrees. “We don’t tell them how many bus drivers to hire,” said Leary.
There is no agreement to be found even in something as basic as whether employees had sick days previous to the strike. One of the biggest grievances of the unions in this strike is workers who have no sick days. “They absolutely get sick days. We offered them more,” said Michael, disputing the general claim. Kinnear acknowledged that Veolia does provide employees with two sick days per year and offered a third, but noted that Miller and First Canada offer none. If they claim they do, “what they are probably talking about are unpaid sick days or disability,” said Kinnear.
“We do offer sick days in some of our benefits packages, but because some employees are part-time and others are full-time, our benefit packages vary. We have discussed this with the union reps during our negotiations,” said Richmond on the situation. She did not elaborate when asked about the paid or unpaid nature of the sick days or if they in fact refer to specific disability packages, not general sick days. We were unable to get a reply from Miller Transit on the matter. YRT management said they cannot comment on whether or not YRT workers get paid sick days.
For Kinnear, these differences and frustrations are one more example of why privatization doesn’t work. He points out that most of the companies involved are part of multinationals based nowhere near York Region. “They fly their American buddies in to conduct negotiations,” says Kinnear. “They don’t care about their employees; they don’t care about the taxpayers of York Region.”
For the YRT, the strike is instead an example of how well the system functions. “Sixty per cent on strike leaves forty per cent in service. That’s pretty good,” Leary said about the available bus service in York Region. He sees that as just one strength of what he calls “a robust and successful business model across North America.”
For many commuters, the third week of a transit strike rolls on, while their buses don’t.