YRT Strike Turns to War
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YRT Strike Turns to War

After a day of picketing, legislation, and accusation, the York Region Transit Strike continues.

Striking YRT workers descended on Finch subway station in force Thursday, bringing a dramatic end to five weeks of union policy that avoided putting strikers on picket lines. York Region matched the unions with strong reversals of their own, moving away from a stance of calmer neutrality and vocally condemning union policies as the YRT rerouted bus lines, trying to negate the impact of the pickets. The day would later find York Region Tory MPPs venting their own frustrations, calling out York Region Council on their actions in the strike during a failed bid to enact back-to-work legislation at Queen’s Park.

Several hundred strikers arrived at Finch Station Thursday morning to picket the Finch Bus Terminal for several hours, temporarily blocking the progress of YRT buses coming in and out of the terminal. Union reps pointed to comments connected to Conservative MPP Frank Klees on a lack of picket lines as goading Thursday’s efforts. They acknowledged the departure from a previous policy that called for few pickets, hoping to retain commuter sympathy.

“Obviously we’re always concerned about the impact on our passengers, particularly in York Region, but at some point we have to escalate our dissatisfaction with our employer,” said Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union local 113, promising the weeks to come would see more picket lines going up.

YRT staff at the terminal responded by eventually setting up temporary bus stations on Bishop Street to bypass the picket lines. The unions attempted to counter the rerouting by sending strikers to picket the municipal intersection of Bishop and Willowdale. They relied on the right-of-way of pedestrians to sanctify the action as they walked slowly up and down intersection pathways at each green light.

“They’re turning this into a war. No problem—we’re up to the challenge,” said Kinnear on what he viewed as the YRT playing games with the strike.

Reactions from commuters at Finch varied wildly.

Mike Nateli, a 45-year-old self-described “angry construction worker” expressed deep dissatisfaction as he waited for his bus. “I don’t want to lose my job because some other assholes want to strike,” said Nateli on the service delays and stoppages and their impact on the commuters who depend on transit to get to work. “When this all started on the 24th of October, I’m lucky my line runs, because if not I can look for another job,” said Nateli, commenting on his long commute to work while using a line that’s one of the 40 per cent still in service. “Look at Richmond Hill—some people there are screwed,” he commented on those he says who haven’t been so lucky as he. “Even if my union strikes, I would never make it hard for people to go to work.”

“It sucks that I have to wait, but on the other hand I understand why they’re doing it,” said Megan Hines, a 22-year-old social services student at Seneca College, her own view far more sympathetic. “In order to get results they have to step things up, so that way they can get back to work,” she added. Hines noted that while it helped that they’ve only started picketing now, if they continue to do so, the strikers won’t lose her sympathy. “They have the right to picket. It’s part of what happens when people are locked out,” said Hines. “I don’t think it’s fair to say, ‘You’re never allowed to strike again,'” added Hines on the terms of the back-to-work legislation being debated that day in the Ontario Legislature and its essential service clause.

Bill Fisch, chairman of York Region Council, had his own choice words for YRT bus drivers and maintenance staff on the picket lines in a statement he provided to Torontoist.

“ATU Local 1587 and ATU Local 113 have held York Region transit riders hostage for over a month while refusing collective bargaining with YRT/Viva contracted operators,” wrote Fisch, maintaining that there is still a basis for contractors and unions to negotiate directly as he seemingly praised contractor efforts and claims.

Richard Leary, YRT general manager, argued that despite the public harshness of the chairman’s words, York Region was not singling out the unions or taking sides in the strike. “It’s being firm,” said Leary, that the message was part of York Region’s own strategy to adapt to the length of the strike, to make stronger demands for a return to negotiations. Leary stated that the same firm language characterized his private calls to the contractors to tell them to get back to the table.

Later that afternoon, Klees accused York Region council of “having failed the people that elected you.” Klees went so far as to suggest he would bring a bill forward that would functionally depose Chairman Fisch, making his position elected by the people of York Region directly. He advocated in the Ontario legislature for the passage of a private member’s bill to legislate the strikers back to work. The bill, presented by PC MPP Peter Shurman, would have sent strikers back to work immediately, established the YRT as an essential service, and sent negotiations to third-party arbitration. It was defeated in a vote of 67 to 37. The NDP refused to support an essential service clause, and the McGuinty Liberals argued the five-week–old strike would resolve itself soon by direct negotiation.

The Liberal viewpoint is not shared by striking workers.

“This is going to go on to New Year’s. This is going to be a long-haul fight,” said Alastair Sutter, a striking YRT bus driver, after the picket lines wrapped up. “We understand the commuters need us, but the companies feel they don’t,” Sutter added.

A day of frustration and conviction ended with another failed effort to resolve a transit strike that now moves ever closer to week six.

Photos by Mark Kay.

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