Be the change you wish to see in the world. (At least, he might have.) One of the changes I wish to see is the end of our reliance on personal cars. And so, in line with Gandhi's (alleged) wisdom, I sold my car a few years ago and have since relied on public transit and my own two feet to get around.
There are many reasons why I think our present-day obsession with cars is harmful to ourselves and to society—enough to merit their own blog post. And I think public transit is a big part of the solution, in large part because the technology and infrastructure for it already exist. Naturally, it would be impossible to take me seriously on this if I wasn't willing to walk the walk, so to speak, and demonstrate that even in the suburbs, you can have a good lifestyle without needing to own your own car.
So it kind of hurts my case when major problems with the transit system crop up and I'm unwillingly kept landlocked at home. Like, for instance, when the bus drivers go on strike and 60% of the system stops running. Which has been the situation here in York Region for the past week.
The Amalgamated Transit Union local 1587 is at odds with several of the private contractors that operate York Region Transit's network, and is vowing to keep their workers on strike until their demands are met. In the meantime, many of us transit riders are simply out of luck.
As usual, it's all about the money.
Neither the contractors nor the union are saying much about what's going on, but it seems the main issue is that bus drivers in York Region are paid less than their counterparts in nearby areas (particularly Toronto) and the union is insisting their wages be raised to match.
I understand this is actually a classic strategy unions often pursue, by holding up the gains made by other unions and telling their employers,
You need to do the same for us. (I'm pretty sure there's a name for it, even. I remember reading an article several years ago, during the auto-industry crisis in the States, that claimed the federal government had successfully used this strategy against the United Auto Workers union: They first negotiated a major concession from workers at one of the auto makers, then demanded the union make the same concession for workers at all the others. Naturally the UAW, despite having used the same strategy many times in the past, howled in indignation.)
There's at least one problem with the ATU taking this stance, and that is it's pretty obvious driving a bus in York Region is not the same as driving a bus in Toronto. Up here there are fewer buses, fewer stops and fewer riders, and things tend to be spread much further apart geographically. The roads are generally wider, there's usually less traffic and—I would say, based on my own experience—drivers are less aggressive overall. When I had a car, I didn't mind driving in York Region too much, but I hated the idea of driving in Toronto. I know there are a lot of people who feel the same way. If the average car owner acknowledges driving is very different between the two regions, why shouldn't the transit union?
Here's another way of looking at it: Were I a bus driver in York Region and told my job was being moved to Toronto, I would absolutely insist on a raise in wages to offset the additional challenge and stress of Toronto driving. Makes sense, right? And yet, turning things around, the ATU is effectively arguing such a raise would be unnecessary as the two jobs are interchangeable.
While the Region, the contractors and the union engage in trench warfare, the transit system is broken and lying in pieces. Getting around via the patchwork system of buses that are still running is time-consuming and frustrating, and some parts of the region are cut off completely from the rest of the network. And there's currently no end in sight.
Perhaps the worst outcome of all is this: As each day passes without a resolution to the strike, the legitimacy of the transit system itself fades further away. For transit ever to be viewed as a viable alternative to car ownership, we need to find a way to end the threat of labour disruptions. Toronto took one approach to the problem this past spring by declaring their transit system an essential service, forbidding workers from striking. I wonder if it is time for York Region, with their characteristically forward-looking approach to public transit and major transit projects already underway, to consider doing the same.
What are the other options, short of giving workers the freedom to write their own contracts?