After a tumultuous week, a resolution still seems far off.
The York Region Transit strike marked its 13th week with shakeups that could put transit service on a path to renewal, or send the talks deeper into stagnation.
The regional government terminated its contract with First Canada on Monday, announcing plans to seek a new private contractor to operate First’s routes. It also announced an end-of-the-week deadline for its remaining contractors, Veolia and Miller, to provide strategies to address the ongoing strike. Tuesday saw Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 vote to refuse the latest offer from Veolia by a wide margin.
So what exactly do these recent developments mean—and what, if anything, do they mean for still struggling commuters?
“We are doing everything we can to help restore transit service to our riders while protecting the taxpayer,” says York Region Chairman Bill Fisch, on the municipal government’s recent moves. Last week they put the larger, 60 foot articulated buses normally used by Viva into service on the lines still in service along Yonge street, hoping to relieve commuter congestion. “There were people being left behind at the station,” said YRT General Manager Richard Leary, pointing to the inability of the usual 40 foot buses to deal with increased commuter use of the routes that are still operational.
The termination of the contract with First Canada was also a part of their coping strategy. “People ask what we are doing, we can tell them we terminated a contract,” Leary told us. York Region Transit plans to have a private contract service proposal ready to present to municipal council for approval on January 26, intending to have the 98 line that travels along Yonge between Newmarket and Richmond Hill up and running by February 5. First’s remaining lines would be phased back into service some unspecified time after.
“There is a great amount of concern, and moments where everybody is in panic mode,” said Ray Doyle, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1587, which represents the workers now permanently unemployed. (The YRT model utilizes several private contractors, who hire from several different locals.) Doyle himself remains calm in the face of feedback from strikers, saying “this was no great loss.” He feels that any new contractor coming in with a mandate to restore even partial service to First’s routes by February will need to hire First’s former unionized workers to meet that deadline. Doyle believes the contract termination was little more than a failed attempt by the regional government to influence Tuesday’s vote by Local 113, a bit of pressure to induce them to accept the offer on the table or risk the same fate as First’s employees. (Seventy-five per cent voted to reject the offer.)
Doyle believes the region’s Friday deadline for service strategies from its remaining contractors, Veolia and Miller, are similarly wrong-headed. “Bill Fisch says the region can’t intervene in the transit strike, [but] what does he think this was?” He also thinks Miller and Veolia are in little danger of having their contracts terminated; they have terms of service that extend well into 2016 and 2013 respectively. First’s contract, by contrast, only had a few months left in it, and Doyle told us there was speculation it wasn’t going to be renewed anyway.
Where contractors go from here is unclear. The offer Local 113 voted on was tendered by Veolia over a month ago, on December 10. Union leadership initially rejected holding a vote on that offer and said they had the backing of their membership in so doing—which seems to have manifested in the subsequent rejection of the offer once the vote was finally held. (Veolia made an appeal to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to require the vote.)
“It’s up to the union now, the next step has to be the union members going to their leadership,” said Valerie Michael, Director of Corporate Communications at Veolia Transport, in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Michael has called the December offer Veolia’s “last and best,” citing a series of wage increases. In the wake of the rejection, Michael has said that Veolia is still open to resuming talks. “We can sit down and discuss the offer and consider their ideas,” said Michael. She then clarified that if those talks occurred, further adjustment to contract provisions around the union’s central concern—health benefits—is non-negotiable. “We can discuss it with them, but we can’t do that,” said Michael over the split. The union wants 100 per cent company coverage of health benefits; Veolia’s offering 75 per cent.
The stability of the agreements with Veolia and Miller is one of the few points on which the unions and contractors agree. And while YRT manager Richard Leary refused to confirm if Miller and Veolia are at risk of contract termination, he did acknowledge the overall circumstances which made First stand out from the other two. “Their contract was up in four months,” he said, also acknowledging that First’s routes only provided service to 6 or 7 per cent of YRT’s ridership.
Valerie Michael at Veolia (which operates 40 per cent of the routes still in service), told us that it was too early to offer specifics, but she does believe Veolia will have a proposal ready for the region by Friday.
Even if Veolia’s plan is acceptable, transit service will remain unavailable in other key areas. Unfortunately, transit riders looking to recent actions with any sense of hope are just as likely to find the routes critical to their commutes still beyond their reach.
Photo by Mark Kay/Torontoist.