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Blog entry of note on transit strike

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PostPosted: Mon May 05, 2008 10:06 am    Post subject: Blog entry of note on transit strike Reply with quote


Thursday, May 1, 2008
Transit strike exposes fault lines in labour movement

The Ontario legislature convened at 1:30 pm, April 27 – the first time in history that the august body had met on a Sunday. In 35 minutes, the politicians had time to have prayers, make a few speeches and, oh yes, give three readings to a bill called the “Toronto Public Transit Service Resumption Act.” By 2:05 pm it was finished, with the support of the NDP and its leader Howard Hampton, his “reservations” notwithstanding.[1] Workers in Ontario will be living with the repercussions of these actions for some time.

Unionized workers at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) had been on legal strike since midnight, Friday April 25, and the strike had caught most by surprise. The Toronto Star of April 24 carried a short article headlined “TTC contract expected to pass vote.”[2] Tense negotiations had resulted in a tentative agreement between the Toronto Transit Commission and the 8,900 strong Amalgamated Transit Union (Local 113) that most saw as a victory for the union. TTC drivers won a wage increase of 3 per cent a year in each year of a three-year deal. On top of that, in what became known as the “GTA clause” drivers received the right to remain the highest paid transit drivers in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). What it means is that if, at the end of 2009, city of Toronto transit drivers are earning less than transit drivers in Mississauga or any other municipality in the GTA, they would “get an increase of 5 cents an hour above the other drivers’ wage.” The Mississauga example is key, because “TTC drivers have been earning 5 cents an hour less than those in Mississauga.”[3]

Conservative members of Toronto City Council were outraged at the deal. “I think it’s a mistake ... We’ve turned over control. It’s not wise,”[4] said Councillor Doug Holyday. “I don’t know where we are going to get the money from,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.[5] But if the right-wing was dissatisfied, so was the rank and file – but for completely different reasons.

First – one of the key areas of disagreement, the treatment of workers injured on the job, had not been fully addressed. Under the old contract, workers injured on the job received 85% of their pay while they were away from work. The union wanted that raised to 100%, and while they made some headway, “obviously, we didn’t get everything we wanted,” said local president Bob Kinnear.[6] The importance of the issue was graphically demonstrated April 20, when two TTC workers were injured, one seriously, after two subway cars collided in a maintenance yard.[7]

There were other issues. While drivers were awarded the “GTA clause,” no such agreement existed for other sections of the local, including maintenance workers who represent about 1/3 of the locals’ membership. Skilled trades workers were also dissatisfied. They had wanted a 10-cent an hour premium raised to 50 cents, but were offered only 25 cents. Tensions around these issues were so high, that seven members of the local’s 16-member executive refused to sign the tentative agreement.[8] In this context of a division at the top, and a feeling that drivers were being treated differently than non-drivers, rumours began to swirl through the membership – most starkly, that there were plans afoot to contract out much of its maintenance work.

But to really understand the events, the entire context has to be seen. City workers – including transit workers – have lived through years and years of budget crises, cuts to services, threats to wages and threats of attacks on conditions such as contracting out. But this year, for the first time since the creation of the amalgamated City of Toronto in 1997, the City came forward with a balanced budget. With Canada’s labour party (the NDP) dominating many of the key positions in the City (including in the mayor’s office, held by David Miller, a long-time NDP stalwart), and with the threat of a budget deficit finally removed from over the heads of the city’s workers, there was a sense that now was the time to make up ground lost in the difficult years of the 1990s. There was developing what labour historian Stuart Marshall Jamieson called in earlier times, a “momentum of rising expectations,”[9] expectations that it was time to make some progress. In that context, we should not be surprised that maintenance and other workers should want to be treated just as well as drivers in the new contract. That is the context in which the tentative agreement was rejected, 65% voting it down.

The rejection of the transit deal was announced late afternoon, Friday April 25. By midnight, the transit system was shut down, the local leadership having called its members out on legal strike. But it was a strike of a special kind. There were no picket assignments, no picket signs, no picket lines, no activity of any sort. At midnight, the doors were locked, the union’s members were sent home and the “strike” was on. The rank and file had spoken, decisively, and the union leadership responded by showing absolutely no leadership.

The workers had been put in an incredibly vulnerable position. Their leadership had announced up and down throughout the long negotiations that any strike would happen after 48 hours’ notice. Instead there was none, maximizing the possibility of a backlash against the union. And with no picket lines, the striking workers were expected to take on their boss, the city and the anti-union media by staying at home – a recipe for failure and demoralization. Perhaps Kinnear and the rest of the ATU leadership were too divided to come up with a plan. Perhaps they were so surprised at the rejection of the deal that they were paralyzed. Perhaps Kinnear was himself “on strike” against the rank and file – pulling them out after the vote, but refusing to do anything to give shape and structure to the strike. In any case, the effect was total confusion.

It did not take long for anti-union forces to enter into the vacuum created by the local leadership’s inaction. Shamefully, it was mayor Miller, flanked by TTC head Adam Giambrone (former head of the federal NDP) who led the charge, calling the strike “unacceptable and unnecessary.”[10] This set the stage for the provincial NDP to help out the Liberals and the Tories in making the strike illegal. So as quickly as it was over, the strike was done.

There is now talk of declaring the TTC an “essential service” and completely stripping its workers of the right to strike. It is not clear that this will happen without a fight. Sid Ryan, Ontario president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said in a press release: “We successfully mobilized labour throughout the province when [former Tory premier] Mike Harris tried to suspend the right to strike during amalgamation, and we are prepared to do that again. The right to strike is a fundamental right in any democracy ... If you take that right away, workers are little more than indentured servants.”[11]

The whole experience has shed light on the fault lines that exist inside the labour movement in this country. The rank and file showed surprising militancy, rejecting a deal that most saw as a victory – saying that they deserved more. The union leadership showed itself incapable of providing a lead to this new sentiment of militancy. And social democratic politicians showed again, that – when forced to choose between working class militancy and being good corporate managers – it is their management hat that often carries the day.

2008 Paul Kellogg

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