Failed negotiations usher transit workers—and transit riders—into their eighth week coping with the strike.
A week of tension-charged pickets, capped with a weekend of collapsing negotiations, has seen the York Region Transit strike endure to its 50th day. For most of those fifty days, the strike has continued much as it began, with the clashing narratives of contractors and unions, York Region Council’s refusal to intervene directly, and the helpless frustration of commuters in the middle. The last few weeks added picket line confrontations between workers and commuters, and scathing condemnations between the region, unions, and contractors into this already strained mix.
How have things gone this long, and where do they go from here?
York Region Transit is comprised of multiple private contractors and their individual groups of employees, whose representation is split across two different locals. After a very quiet start to the strike, workers then fully embraced a shift in strategy that took them onto the picket lines for days at a time, marching and blocking buses in five minute intervals across York Region transit hubs, the Finch bus terminal, and YRT service garages. When YRT staff attempted to circumvent delays by rerouting buses outside of the terminals, strikers switched gears to blocking cars coming through the transit hubs or into the YRT headquarters plaza. The change sparked confrontations with enraged rush hour drivers as lines of cars backed up behind them during picket delays. Some drivers attempted to push their cars right through the lines, outright striking picketers on multiple occasions, though no injuries have resulted from such actions.
Commuters still taking the much delayed 40 per cent of transit routes still in service in the YRT system have found their own sympathies fraying. “I’m trying to do as much as I can, but if this continues this is going to be hard,” said Gaurav Rajput, on the difficulty of keeping his job at Tim Hortons despite a much longer commute. “I understand how they feel, but they need to understand that the GTA and York Region are not the same,” added Rajput regarding worker demands fuelled by a gap between their benefits and transit workers in the GTA, imploring contractors and unions to come back to the table and “meet each other half way.”
“It is a concern that the support level isn’t what we hoped it would be,” said Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. Kinnear points to the unions being the most visible parties in this strike and becoming a focus for commuter frustration. He argues the strikers need to keep on picket lines to maintain attention for their cause; he believes the problem to be a lack of media coverage bringing attention to the strikers as “part of the 99 per cent.” Kinnear’s position is that the striking workers are suffering at the hands of multinational corporations, and strongly rejects the characterization of drivers as lazy. “There is a lot of responsibility in operating a forty-foot bus,” argued Kinnear, speaking of the stress and training involved in keeping passengers safe along their commute.
The difficulties of strikers and commuters alike are compounded by the recent breakdown of an attempt to renew negotiations. After pledges from both sides early last week to negotiate, representatives of Veolia and Local 113 sat down this past Saturday to talk. What followed is a matter of competing statements coming from each side, with contractors and union representatives unable to agree on everything from who walked away first, to why the negotiations happened on the day that they did. “Why not Wednesday, why not Thursday?” said Kinnear, noting delays he felt were needless and a sign of the contractors having no real interest in negotiations. Valerie Michael, director of corporate communications at Veolia, maintains that it was a matter of finding a day where they, union reps, and the provincial mediator were all available. “If it was that important to them, why didn’t they contact us?” asked Michael, referring to a union press release stating they would resume negotiations if asked by contractors first.
Veolia’s stated that the union demand that the contractor cover 100 per cent of a benefits package, an increase from the current 50 per cent, is unsustainable without adding to York Region taxpayer burdens for transit. Kinnear argues that the contractor could bear the cost of the package themselves as a “blip in their profits,” claiming Veolia takes in $50 billion in yearly revenue.
The one point of agreement in everyone’s statements: a belief that the other party was lacking in good faith.
“They’re lying bags of shit,” said Kinnear. He believes the negotiations were nothing more than an empty PR exercise designed by contractors to demoralize strikers with the crumbled hope of a settlement.
“The union wants to negotiate only to their benefit,” said Michael, alleging a lack of concern for the York Region community they serve. She believes the strikers’ insistence on a three-year deal that would synch up all bus service contracts would allow for a complete collapse in transit service when the next round of contract negotiations comes around.
Though Amalgamated Transit Union 1587, the other local with workers in the YRT system, has negotiations of their own this Monday with contractors, in light of the failure of Saturday’s talks, their prospects look dim.
Ray Doyle, president of local 1587, confirms in a recent news release that talks between the union and Miller Transit broke down. Doyle alleges that Miller refused to move from their previous offer or put forward a counter offer to the union’s proposed changes. No new negotiations are scheduled between local 1587 and Miller or First Canada, the other YRT contractor employing workers represented by Local 1587. Doyle spoke of recieving an e-mail from First, stating they would not move from their final pre strike offer, as making an effort towards negotiations pointless.
Photos by Mark Kay/Torontoist.