A few hours before the TTC strike deadline (the one they told us about), I found myself, as I often do, at a poetry slam.
That the potential strike came up wasn’t surprising, but the tone was: one performer concluded with a firehose of impromptu invective aimed at TTC workers – and people lapped it up, stomping and hollering.
If a roomful of struggling artists were up for a two-minute hate-on, the union’s popularity was sunk before negotiations ever began.
Lately, our urban imagination has been sparked by romantic tributes to the TTC (I’ve contributed a few myself), but as in most romances, the attraction is mostly about the gulf between what could be and what actually is. The reality is – sorry – that our transit is a third-rate system, many of whose front-line operators treat us like livestock.
Of course, a moderate number simply ignore us, which, for Toronto, counts as being friendly; and a blessed minority are capable of brightening our day (a shout-out to the 506 driver with the beatific demeanour and encyclopedic knowledge of College).
But public fondness for the system seems to take an effort, which some may now be less willing to make.
Whence the cause? Let’s start with what we know. Sixty-five per cent of voting members in Amalgamated Transit Union 113 (just under half of all members) scuttled the agreement. It’s now clear that most opposition came from the maintenance workers, who make up just under half the workforce.
Keep this in mind for two reasons: probably less than a quarter of the drivers soaking in your opprobrium actually voted to strike; and the constituency that triggered the strike works out of public view, on the shop floors, in the garages and tunnels, where safety is a major concern.
Labour scholar and York prof Leo Panitch offers this take on those unseen corners. “We don’t know what’s going on in those garages in terms of authoritarian practices or shitty managers,’’ he says, suspecting growing frustration among maintenace workers. “Very often in this society, such frustration gets expressed as ‘Give me more money.’’’
To riders, the TTC is a point of rare intimacy between us and the city. But it’s also the TTC ferrying us to jobs we hate, handing down the costs of neo-liberal underfunding, peppering us with ads that belittle us, and often mucking up a schedule no one likes but everyone has to follow.
So the other side of that intimacy is a profound alienation.
But while the TTC is a romance and an ordeal, it’s also just somebody’s job. To drivers and ticket-takers, riders are customers, comrades, citizens and cattle – the guise changing constantly, never quite fitting – while we see as transit as both noble public service and baffling, obstinate bureaucracy. The American Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 executive clumsily brought to bear the weight of both, to little effect and much resentment.
Drivers are in the difficult position of seeing us as both proponents of public services and paycheque providers. Half of our fares go toward salaries; is that why drivers seem to take fare disputes so personally?
The province and feds, having abandoned the TTC and sometimes the city, pit us against transit workers and thus thwart the wider possibilities of publicly supported labour action.
No one from the ATU 113 executive returned calls, so it’s hard to determine if there was anything on the table beyond what trickled out: benefit issues, contracting-out worries, full pay for injured workers, a 3 per cent raise each year and the grievous insult of a 5 cent difference between Toronto and Mississauga drivers, leading to a “highest paid in the region’’ clause (though the push for “most fun at a party’’ designation was ultimately abandoned).
No demands, it appears, were made for service improvements, though common cause with riders is obvious. Given that most absenteeism is due to injury, and many injuries occur during fare disputes, why not negotiate, say, a zone transfer or timed transfer system, so transfers are valid anywhere within a certain area or period?
Hell, why not demand that drivers no longer be responsible for fare enforcement? Why not push for caps on fare increases? For fare decreases? Free transit for children? Why not start to push for free transit for everyone?
Why squander an opportunity to push back against mammoth subsidization of the auto industry, the gutting of public services and the commodification of our cities? The money is there. It could be found, espe-cially if the union demanded fare freezes and fare cuts, bolstered by fare strikes – the refusal to collect fares from riders.
Fear of such an alliance, is, I suspect, the real motive, even if it’s only instinctive, behind calls to label the TTC an essential service and remove the right to strike. The possibility of a focused ATU membership allied with the citizenry represents a power to rival that of politicians.
“Public service workers have an interest in services being funded,’’ says Panitch. “The more they don’t have the right to strike, the weaker are the forces who are calling for non-commodified public service.”
When asked if there are examples of such communion between public unions and city residents, he points to a CUPE strike in the early 80s when, instead of being apologetic about the conditions in nursing homes, workers campaigned to expose them.
The right to strike was used frivolously last weekend, it’s true. Now there’s a push to end TTC strikes, and that would be a terrible shame, because they are potentially one of the strongest tools for rebuilding public transit. Such a move might enforce a stable relationship, but it would almost certainly kill the romance.