Union Rally Fails to Move York Region Council
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Union Rally Fails to Move York Region Council

Council continues to call for a return to transit strike negotiations, refuses to support third-party arbitration.

Striking transit workers march outside York Region Municipal headquarters.

York Region Council faced a packed audience of striking York Region Transit workers Thursday, silently thronging the council chamber as their fellow employees loudly rallied outside. After withdrawing to a closed-door session to discuss the strike, councillors later emerged with opinions unchanged. They continued to call for both parties to return to negotiations, providing no support for the unions’ calls for third-party arbitration or for council taking action beyond the statements already issued.

The rally began at 9 a.m., with strikers gathered to march outside York Region Municipal Headquarters. At the lead was Amalgamated Transit Union local 113 President Bob Kinnear, Local 1587 President Ray Doyle, while Amalgamated Transit Union International President Larry Hanley accompanied the large group of strikers. Many would later take off their signs so they could pack the council chamber while their fellow workers continued to rally outside the building. They kept quiet despite their numbers due to a union concern that the meeting would become a media spectacle. John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, delivered a speech on their behalf.

The open goal of the unions was to get a direct response on the transit strike from York Region councillors as they sat in session. “If we’re being unreasonable, tell us we’re being unreasonable,” said Kinnear, seeking direct engagement over a Wednesday press release from York Region.

The release called for a return by contractors and union reps to the negotiating table, with the region taking a stronger stance in the dispute than it had for three weeks, when it offered no comment and no opinion. The letter pointed to negotiation details Miller Transit revealed that allege that representatives of local 1587 demanded a 16 per cent wage increase in the first year of a new contract “It is unlikely any employer, public or private, would be capable of meeting such demands in the current economic climate,” wrote Bill Fisch, chairman and CEO of York Region, adding that contractor offers were in line with industry peers.

The region’s sudden shift in stance mirrors that of the unions, who began actively picketing bus services earlier this week. “We’re being more vocal,” said Richard Leary, YRT general manager, acknowledging the change in policy. Leary notes the release being a result of YRT pressuring contractors with calls “five, six times a week” and having some of the companies release negotiation details to YRT as a result. Leary also moved away from previous refusals to comment on issues like worker sick days, saying that YRT information corroborated union claims that Miller Transit offered no sick days to its employees. He was quick to add that their current contract offer to the union did include them, by his understanding.

Union reps have been dismissive of the region’s letter. “It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” said Doyle. The unions instead looked hopefully to the private council meeting that would follow their rally. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Kinnear, believing that the combination of rally and sit-in would encourage the council to take actions beyond calls to resume negotiations. Kinnear and other union reps continue to look for support for third-party arbitration, stating that contractors and unions have reached a total impasse.

Fisch was quick to disabuse the unions of their beliefs after the meeting, standing by the earlier positions of York Region in a newly released statement, shoring up Wednesday’s call to resume direct negotiations.

“We heard from union leaders today that wage parity with GTA peers is not the expectation; rather improvement in the wage gap is the realistic goal. Given this observation, and in light of wage offers that have emerged, it would appear both parties are in a position to resume meaningful negotiations,” wrote Fisch, in response to Cartwright’s speech to the council.

He added that mediators the labour ministry had already provided should be enough help for contractors and unions to resume direct negotiations with each other. His statement functionally rebuffed the idea of third-party arbitration and a union offer to resume working immediately if all parties would agree to it.

With the rally’s hopes dashed, York Region firm in its views, and a continuing lack of talks between unions and contractors, the strike marches on into its second month.

Top photo by Mark Kay/Torontoist. Photo of the Viva ticket vending machine by wyliespoon from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.