Posts categorized under York Region

On the York Region Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 31 October 2011 – Comments returning soon
Service Alert posted at a YRT bus stop

Only 40% of the transit system in York Region is running, leaving many bus stops unserviced.

Gandhi said, 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.

The Issue

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.

The Upshot

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?


Staying Informed during the York Region Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 2 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

(Update: I now regularly post updates about the strike myself, both on Twitter and on my blog. You can subscribe to the RSS feed to be notified right away when I post something new.)

One of the things I find most frustrating about the ongoing transit strike here in York Region is the almost complete lack of information being provided to riders. Here's a quick rundown of the ways I've found so far to keep in touch about what's going on.

On Twitter

@YRTVivaStrike and @YRTVivaStrk2011 are both tweeting updates and retweeting posts from riders affected by the strike.

The Region itself tweets as @YorkRegionGovt. York Region Transit doesn't appear to have its own Twitter account, although it's possible they might communicate through @vivaNext.

Riders are using the hashtags #YRT, #YRTStrike and #YRTVivaStrike on tweets about the strike.

On Facebook

York Region's Facebook page has become a de facto outlet for riders expressing their frustration.

On the Web

Responding to the outcry from riders, the Region has announced they'll be posting daily updates on YRT's strike-information page. The value of this remains to be seen, as they maintain they have no involvement in the labour negotiations.

An unnamed individual has set up an automated form that will send an email to the Region, the contractors, councillors and your MPP on your behalf expressing concern over the strike.  (Thanks, Tracy Smith.)

Amazingly, none of the union, the contractors or the media have had much to say online. YorkRegion.com has posted a couple of articles but doesn't even consider the strike a hot topic. You might try checking Google News periodically.

More

If you know of any other resources, or you're also blogging about the strike, please post a comment below and I'll add your information.


Who's to Blame in the York Region Transit Strike?

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 4 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

We're now nearing the end of the second week of the transit strike in York Region and it appears no progress has been made. I'm becoming just as frustrated as the many others who are without an easy or affordable way to get around the area.

There's been much outcry from riders, on Twitter and particularly on the Region's Facebook page, about the strike, and many are loudly demanding various actions be taken to end it. Here are my thoughts on the three parties involved and what can be done.

The Region

The government of York Region has consistently said they are not involved and will not become involved in the labour negotiations, as they do not employ bus drivers directly. Rather, they contract out the operation of the transit system to private companies, and it is these contractors who are responsible for negotiating with their workers.

Nonetheless, many have called for the Region to get involved in some way, with demands ranging from councillors forcing the two sides back to the table to the Region itself taking over operation of the transit system. So far no politician seems very interested in entering the dispute. Perhaps that will change if the strike drags on, although I wonder what can be gained when neither side seems willing to make concessions.

(Update: The same day I wrote this, three York Region MPPs, Frank Klees, Peter Shurman and Julia Munro, issued a statement calling for the strike to end. Thanks to councillor Maddie Di Muccio for pointing this out.)

On the subject of the Region dismissing the contractors and taking on a greater role in transit operations, there are a couple of things I want to point out. First, the fact this is not the situation presently is the only reason there are any buses operating at all right now. If there were a single employer (York Region) and a single union, a strike would bring the entire transit system to a halt.

Second, I cannot imagine the Region would be able to run the transit system as cost-effectively as the private operators do currently, and I commend it for admitting as much on the YRT strike-information page:

Generally, publicly-owned transit operations are more expensive to run than their private counterparts. Public ownership in York Region would mean an increased burden on taxpayers and riders. It would not make financial sense to take on a model that would actually cost more—for everyone.

People who argue this point seem to forget it is competition between contractors during the bidding process, and the possibility of earning a profit afterwards, that is keeping transit costs down. Remove these factors and there would be less incentive, not more, to constrain transit spending—which is perhaps why the union seems so interested in pursuing this outcome.

The Contractors

Speaking of which, one of the things that stands out in my mind is how little noise the union seems to be making in the contractors' direction. If the workers believe the contractors are treating them unfairly, why have we not seen any picketing outside those buildings?

More and more I'm inclined to think wages are only a secondary concern for the union, with its primary complaint being the privatization of transit operations. As evidence, I note the one rally we've seen so far was staged outside York Region headquarters, home of the only party (aside from the riders) not actually involved in the negotiations. Here the interest in pressuring the Region to take over transit operations seems clear. An article on YorkRegion.com about the rally quotes John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council:

York Region should say, Yes, we have to have a properly run system, run by the public, for the public. That's what a mature government does. But we've still got a disconnect which is that the leadership of York Region is addicted to privatization.

The same article quotes a spokesperson for Veolia, the contractor responsible for operating the Viva lines, saying their organization has told the union it will meet its demands but has not heard a response. If this is true (and I've yet to see a denial from the union), why was a new contract not immediately signed? Again, it suggests higher wages are not actually what the union is agitating for.

Despite any of this, it is still possible the remaining contractors are paying their workers too little. I'll get to that in a moment. For now I'll note that if I were negotiating on the contractors' behalf and it started to appear the issue wasn't compensation at all but rather the employers' very presence in the region, I'd be tempted to think the union was acting in bad faith. I'm not surprised the contractors aren't rushing back to the table.

The Union

Let me preface this section by stating that I do feel sympathy for the drivers. I was in a similar situation myself once, when I discovered a co-worker of mine was being paid a significantly higher salary to deliver work no better than my own. So believe me, I understand the anger and the pain these people are feeling.

Having said that, I'm a long way from being convinced that agreeing to the union's demands is the correct response. If we assume higher wages are indeed what the union is after (and not the end of privatization), we first need to make sure higher wages are warranted. To do that we need to ask, What should a bus driver in York Region be paid?

As things stand right now, this question is difficult to answer. The union has said drivers in York Region should be paid as much as drivers in the surrounding regions. But this argument rests on nothing more than the union's say-so. Without any further information, we could use the same argument to conclude that drivers in other regions are being paid too much. After all, until recently YRT drivers were willing to work for $22 an hour. If we believe the union that transit jobs across the GTA have equal value, why should a TTC driver have been earning more?

I'm no free-market extremist, but it seems to me this is just the sort of question for which market forces can produce a good answer. Suppose people were free to be hired as bus drivers and to move between jobs at will. If not enough people were willing to drive a bus in York Region for $22 an hour, contractors would have little option but offer a higher wage until they found enough drivers to provide the service they've promised. Alternatively, if there were a surplus of willing applicants, contractors would have an incentive to lower the wage. Either way, I expect we'd soon have our answer, as wages settled at an amount balancing the contractors' need to supply service with the drivers' need for income and their desire for the work.

But this seems to be just the situation the union wants to prevent. Remember, its goal is to secure the greatest value for its members, independent of any outside considerations. If it is so obvious to union leaders that drivers in York Region are underpaid, why don't they step aside and let market forces reveal the true value of the work? If YRT drivers can get a better deal working for the TTC, or for Brampton Transit, or for GO Transit, why don't they quit and go do so?

What have I missed? Post a comment below to let me know. And to my fellow riders, I wish you luck in arranging transportation over the weekend.


Legislating an End to the YRT Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 7 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

(Update: Back-to-work legislation has since been called for by three York Region MPPs, and the Labour Minister has responded saying it is not being considered. Be sure to read my most recent post or follow me on Twitter to get the latest information.)

Today marks the start of the third week of the transit strike in York Region. To the best of my knowledge the union has had nothing to say to the contractors since before the strike began. In other words, it appears not a single bit of progress has been made towards restoring transit service.

But this is not for lack of trying on the contractors' part. A YorkRegion.com article indicates two of the three contractors against whom the union is striking, Veolia and First Transit, have both made new offers in the interim that have been ignored:

The ball is in their court, said First Transit spokesperson Maureen Richmond.

The company has made a fair, equitable offer to the union and is willing to keep negotiations going, but the union has been unresponsive since rejecting a deal last week, she said.

Veolia spokesperson Valerie Michael said her company offered Viva workers what they wanted following the rejection of an earlier offer last week, but never heard back from the union, ATU 113.

We really can't move forward, because, as far as we know, we gave them what they asked for, she said, adding no new talks were scheduled.

I speculated in my last post that the wages-and-benefits issue is really just a smokescreen for the union's longer-term strategy, which is overturning the privatization of transit in the region and replacing it with a completely public model. If this is true—and if it isn't, why is the union picketing Region headquarters while ignoring requests from contractors to meet?—there is no hope for talks between the two sides to continue, because the union is demanding something the contractors can't offer.

Consequently I've lost faith that the union and the contractors can resolve this dispute on their own. Like many of the riders who are busy tearing up the Region's Facebook page, I'm now thinking political intervention is the way forward.

Legislate 'em Back to Work

A political solution to the strike would normally take the form of back-to-work legislation, which would mandate that the bus drivers return to work and specify penalties if they fail to do so.

For those who (like me) are just learning about all this, the CBC website has a great FAQ on the subject. I was mistaken earlier in assuming any such legislation would require the drivers to return to the job at their existing wages. Instead, it is likely the government would require the union and the contractors to submit new offers to an outside arbitrator, who would prepare a new contract to which both would be bound. Presumably, this contract would force concessions from both sides.

Regardless, once the legislation is passed and the arbitration process completed, we could expect the strike to be over and transit service to be resumed.

How do we Make it Happen?

Public transit is considered a provincial concern, so any back-to-work legislation would need to come from Queen's Park.

Posters on Facebook have told me for this legislation to be introduced it must first be requested by York Region council. Assuming this is true (I haven't yet found a source), if you believe it's time for politicians to intervene, your first step should be to contact the councillors for your municipality to explain how the transit strike is affecting you and to express doubt in the negotiations. It probably wouldn't hurt to contact your MPP at the same time, asking him or her to support the introduction of back-to-work legislation.

Scott Burlovich has created an automated form that will do this on your behalf.

If you do contact your councillor or MPP, be polite. Regardless of how you feel about the strike or the government, remember that politicians are people and that a confrontational attitude is not going to motivate anyone to seek a solution on your behalf.

The Downside

Before you rush off to do this, if it's the union you're angry at, there's reason to think a legislative solution can wait.

Frankly, I can't escape the thought that back-to-work legislation might be just what the union is hoping for. It seems to me it has been negotiating in bad faith, framing the issue as being about wages but ignoring concessions on that front so it can pursue a much different goal. While relying on a legislative solution is a risky strategy (no one knows ahead of time what terms will be imposed) it's likely any arbitrated contract will include concessions to the union, ones that may go beyond what it feels it can negotiate from the contractors directly.

In a CTV News article published during last summer's postal-workers' strike, labour lawyer Howard Levitt is quoted warning that back-to-work legislation can actually work in a union's favour:

Levitt said that the public has little sympathy for both the Air Canada and Canada Post unions, and Canadians would likely allow the strikes to go on indefinitely. In such long-term disruptions, management gains the upper hand, said Levitt.

This provides both employers an unprecedented opportunity to permanently weaken the union and impose contracts on their terms, he said.

Instead, they are seeking return-to-work legislation, which will result in the normally union-friendly terms imposed by most arbitrators...

In short, Levitt said that governments in Canada appear incapable of playing hardball, however opportune the circumstances.

If you believe the union is at fault for the strike, this should give you pause. As painful as it is to contemplate, continuing to wait things out might place the contractors or the Region in a better position to make long-term gains against the union. And regardless of your position, reducing the likelihood of future strikes can only increase the viability of transit as an alternative to driving.

Do you think it's time for politicians to force the bus drivers back to work? Post a comment and let me know.


Possible Progress in the YRT Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 8 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

A post on the Region's Facebook page claims Veolia Transport, the company currently contracted to operate the Viva lines, is scheduled to meet with the union (ATU local 113) tomorrow. The source is apparently a representative at Veolia.

If this is true, it'll be the first bit of genuine progress we'll have seen in a transit strike that has now lasted over two weeks and inconvenienced countless people.

My hope is the two sides will be meeting to review Veolia's last offer, which they made before the strike began and in which the company claims they gave them [the union] what they asked for. If so, this could mean a new agreement between the two parties is not far away. And as another person noted on Facebook, that could prove a tipping point in the strike, as many people (myself included) would be able to get around adequately if only the Viva lines were running.

For those who are blaming the contractors for the strike, I'd like to emphasize that Veolia has been waiting for the union to return to the table for at least two weeks now. The company claims (and I haven't seen this refuted anywhere) they were willing to meet the union's demands before the strike even started. Why, then, will it have taken more than two weeks for the union to respond to their offer? Did the union hold the transit system hostage for two weeks just to make a point? Or is it possible the strike was never about wages at all?

I see lots of people claiming the contractors are unresponsive or that they don't care about people. If this is how you feel, please post a comment and let us know what you think Veolia should have done differently in this case.

Are you on Twitter? Follow me for updates and discussion about the strike.


On the Privatization of Transit in York Region

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 9 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

We are now on the 17th day of the transit strike. It's expected talks will be resuming between Veolia and the union (ATU Local 113) today, which could represent progress towards the restoration of service on the Viva lines. I'll be posting any news about the outcome as soon as it becomes available.

In the comments to yesterday's post I speculated the union had pulled a sort of bait-and-switch on the public, claiming to be striking over wages while actually pursuing an anti-privatization agenda. In fact, the union has been up-front about this from the start. From the strike announcement posted on ATU Local 113's website:

The strike is mainly about the huge wage gap ($7/hour) between York Region Transit workers and those doing essentially the same jobs in surrounding communities...

The problem is privatization, says Local 113 President Bob Kinnear. York Region passengers pay the highest fares in the GTA and taxpayers pay the highest subsidies but the workers have the lowest wages. The difference is the huge profits that are being shipped out of the country by these transnational corporations.

The big question is why Local 113 went on strike at all when the employer, Veolia, claims it already gave them what they asked for to begin with—but I've written enough about that. My point is that it's actually no secret the union wants to use the strike to get people questioning the privatization model used for transit in the region.

(Update: As I was writing this blog post Torontoist published an article, More Confusion Than Commuters, that provides a great deal more information about the negotiations between the contractors and the union. Significantly, it contains a refutation from Kinnear of Veolia's characterization of its offer.)

I'm just beginning my research into the public-versus-private debate and I'll have more to say about it soon. From what I've learned so far, I'm less convinced than I was that transitioning to a purely public model would be a bad thing for taxpayers. But before we run off and start pestering Council, there are a few things I'd like people to keep in mind.

The fact that our transit system is so heavily subsidized by taxpayers and has such high fares means only one thing: Our transit system is currently very expensive to operate. This could mean taxpayers are getting a bad deal from the contractors, yes, but there are other factors to consider as well. York Region is very large geographically with a fairly sparse population, and York Region Transit has the challenge of providing adequate service to such a large area despite a comparatively small ridership. Fares in the region are likely to stay high for the foreseeable future, as the buses have a lot of ground to cover and there simply are not that many people paying fares to begin with. This is one reason why comparisons to the TTC and other systems are often specious: Those systems are operating under a much different set of constraints.

I'd also like to point out that unless savings are found elsewhere, raising driver's wages will only increase the cost of operating the transit system. And this in turn means an even higher taxpayer subsidy, even higher fares, or both. This is not an argument against paying drivers reasonable wages, but it is something to keep in mind, especially as we read comments from the union itself about what the transit system is costing us.

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ATU Local 113 Calls for Arbitration

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 10 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

Let me start by correcting something I said on Twitter this morning:

Image of Twitter post reading, "Union admits they're hoping for back-to-work-legislation. Did I call it right?"

This is not quite true. The union (ATU Local 113) has not called for back-to-work legislation. What they have asked is that the contractors agree to submit to arbitration overseen by the Regional government. However, this kind of arbitration is the typical outcome of back-to-work legislation, so although what I said was technically wrong, I may have correctly captured the spirit of the request.

There's a lot to say about the last twenty-four hours. Let's back up a bit.

The Negotiations with Veolia

Yesterday's meeting between Veolia and Local 113 did not go well. Veolia came to the table with a revised version of the final offer they'd made to the union before the strike, and (at long last) the union turned them down. So much for my hope we'd be seeing Viva buses running next week.

There are two things to point out about the media's reporting of the meeting. First of all, Veolia has decided to made public some of the details of the rejected offer (perhaps as if to say, It's not us, guys!). You can read about it on YorkRegion.com. I don't really know enough to evaluate whether this is a good offer or not, but I will say it does not sound to me as though Veolia is trying to make its drivers suffer. On the contrary, what's being offered is more than many people can hope for right now, include anyone who has lost their job as a result of the strike and (I would think) the vast majority of the students who are trying to get to classes using the fragments of the transit system still running.

Secondly, we haven't been told what, specifically, the union found objectionable about the offer. Surprisingly, even Veolia says they're not sure why the offer was rejected. From an article in the Toronto Star:

However, Valerie Michael, director of corporate communications for VIVA, said it's the unions who are being obstinate.

In the meeting Wednesday, she said the union was pushing for better benefits, but that their proposals were vague.

They say it's not acceptable and then walk away, she said. It's very difficult to move forward from there.

There are two easy explanations I can think of here. First, it could be Ms. Michael is misrepresenting what happened during the negotiations.

Alternatively, it could be the union is still waiting for an offer that brings wages up to what drivers are earning in other parts of the GTA. If so and Veolia has not bought into the union's argument for this (and I think they should not), it could explain why the offer was quickly rejected.

But it stands out to me that Ms. Michael describes the union's proposals as vague. If we assume she is telling the truth, surely there would be no confusion if the union were simply insisting on a higher base wage. Is it possible the union is being deliberately coy about what sort of offer it will sign? I am again wondering if perhaps the union has been purposefully trying to avoid reaching an agreement with the contractors at all.

The Call for Arbitration

Remember what I wrote on Monday?

Frankly, I can't escape the thought that back-to-work legislation might be just what the union is hoping for. It seems to me it has been negotiating in bad faith, framing the issue as being about wages but ignoring concessions on that front so it can pursue a much different goal. While relying on a legislative solution is a risky strategy (no one knows ahead of time what terms will be imposed) it's likely any arbitrated contract will include concessions to the union, ones that may go beyond what it feels it can negotiate from the contractors directly.

And now, after walking away from the bargaining table again for vague reasons,

The union has written to York Regional Chairman Bill Fisch saying that they will agree to arbitration and end the strike immediately if the companies also agree in writing to submit the dispute to neutral arbitrators.

Here's my theory: Arbitration has been the union's goal all along. It probably never expected the strike to go past the two-week mark—the pattern in Toronto was for back-to-work legislation to be introduced within a matter of days. But with enough time having passed for public sympathy to wane and with no such legislation on the horizon, the union is having to take matters into its own hands.

I suspect yesterday's meeting with Veolia was largely an act to make the union appear to be negotiating in good faith, when in fact it would have rejected almost anything the company presented. With that out of the way, the union now feels free to throw its hands up and ask for what it really wanted in the first place: Government-overseen arbitration, the neutral process that tends to favour unions.

(Incidentally, don't pay any attention to the poll results published by the union; everyone knows those are so easily manufactured as to make polling completely useless. It is simply a rhetorical device to make the union appear to be acting in the public interest rather than unilaterally.)

We'll see what the government's next move is. Despite what I wrote on Monday, I am kind of hoping the strike is allowed to continue even longer. The union told us they wanted better wages and took our transit system hostage to get them. Why should we not hold them to their word and insist they pursue a legitimate agreement on that issue, instead of allowing them an easy and rewarding way out?

Am I off-base about all this? Post a comment below and help me understand better.


No Back-to-Work Legislation in the YRT Strike, Labour Minister Says

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 11 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

We are now on day 19 and there is still no clear indication of when the YRT strike will be over.

Yesterday three York Region MPPs, Frank Klees, Peter Shurman and Julia Munro, held a media conference at Queen's Park where they called for back-to-work legislation to bring an end to the strike. (These are the same MPPs who issued an earlier statement.) They also called for the essential-service designation granted to Toronto's transit system to be extended to all transit systems in the GTA.

The same day, Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey announced the provincial government is not considering or discussing back-to-work legislation for the striking drivers. So for the time being, at least, that avenue has closed.

Many people will be upset by this news. However, I think it is a wise move by the government (and, happily enough, is what I'd wanted them to do). I believe the union has been hoping for back-to-work legislation for some time. Regardless, we know they are now hoping for arbitration. And as counterintuitive as it seems, I have reason to think the union may be hoping for essential-service designation as well. Why should the government give the union what it wants?

Here's the thing: I no longer believe this strike was ever about wages. I believe it has been a staged protest of the public-private model for transit used in the region and an expression of the union's desire to negotiate with government instead of business. This explains why the union has been so shy about resuming talks with the contractors, it explains why the only rally was held outside Region headquarters and not the buildings of the companies it is allegedly protesting, and it explains why the union is now so earnestly calling for arbitration—anything, anything at all to establish the idea that the Region is whom the union should be negotiating with instead of its actual employers.

Clearly the MPPs get this. Union President Bob Kinnear showed up at the media conference yesterday to push his request for arbitration. But the politicians weren't buying it:

And there's no end game here involving getting Fisch to the table at all? Shurman said. C'mon Bob, you can't suck and blow.

If what I believe is true, we've been lied to and manipulated by the union, who called a strike under false pretense (the wage gap) and have held both drivers and riders hostage for nearly three weeks while it pursued its own political ambitions. Are you angry yet? Let the government box the union in. Force the union to do the one thing it seems to least want to do—negotiate with the contractors directly on the wages issue—and let it be content with whatever it can accomplish on its own.

Perhaps it will not be so eager to shut down the transit system next time.

Looking for updates about the strike? You should follow me on Twitter.


On the Fourth Week of the YRT Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 14 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

We are now on day 22 of the YRT strike, which marks the beginning of the fourth week since the buses stopped. There is still no end in sight.

Despite the events of last week, everything is essentially the same as it was seven days ago. The York Region MPPs' call for back-to-work legislation was denied, and I think we can assume the union's call for binding arbitration has been or will be denied as well. What progress can we hope to see this week?

The Government is Actively Doing Nothing

During the past three weeks we've heard very little from either Region councillors or MPPs about the strike. Many people are accusing the government of doing nothing or ignoring the people, but I suspect neither of these things is true. I think it's just as likely the government is pursuing a strategy of actively waiting out the strike, knowing the union's position will naturally weaken as time goes by. As a commenter on Facebook pointed out yesterday, no Conservative or Liberal politician would want to be seen as interfering with private business anyway.

Despite the damage the strike is causing to residents, the government has little incentive to budge or to bow to the union's demands. We've just had a provincial election, so MPPs (who control back-to-work legislation) are safe in their seat for the next four years. Similarly, Council has three years left in its term. If politicians believe letting the strike drag on is in the Region's long-term interests, I think they have little to fear from the public in doing so. The public will have forgotten all about the strike in three years' time.

As a result, I predict we will see... nothing at all from the government this week. It will maintain its position of waiting for the union to resume talks with the contractors. If the government does take action, it will be in response to a new proposal from the union as it tries to avoid coming back to the table. And the action will be to deny this, of course.

The Union's Next Move

I honestly do not know what options the union has at this point. It clearly does not want to continue negotiating with the contractors; it claims it has not made much progress there and I doubt it will. But its hope of winning greater concessions through arbitration has faded and as time goes by, its position weakens. At least two of the contractors (First Transit and Veolia) claim they made generous new offers before the strike started. If the union waits too long to sign, it may discover even that generosity has vanished.

Perhaps the union already has in mind another way to avoid returning to the table and will propose it this week. At the same time, its leaders must be considering the possibility it's time to settle. Their larger goal has been to get the public questioning the private sector's involvement in transit. If they accomplish that, they may very well consider the strike a success even if they make only very small gains in workers' compensation. So I predict we will see an even stronger effort by the union to get its anti-privatization message out, especially over the next few days.

What options do you think the union has at this point? Post a comment below and let me know.


In Defense of the Government

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 15 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

I've seen a couple of comments floating around the Internet that make me think my post yesterday might have been misinterpreted.

I wasn't intending to criticize the government for what I perceive to be its strategy of inaction in dealing with the YRT strike, or to suggest politicians are smugly sitting idle, safe in the knowledge that elections are far away. I really think nothing is the best thing for the regional and provincial governments to be doing right now. And I'm pleased it's turned out politicians are somewhat sheltered from public outcry at the moment, as it will give them the leeway to do what they consider best for the Region in the long term even if it causes some additional pain here and now.

Everything I can think of that the government might do strikes me as counterproductive, handing power over to the union, or politically impossible to begin with. Here are my responses to some of the demands I've seen from others.

The government should pass back-to-work legislation to end the strike.

This has already been called for by three Conservative MPPs representing parts of York Region, and the response from the Labour Minister was that it is not being considered. I've heard rumblings that suggest at least one of the MPPs involved, Frank Klees, is still working on making this happen, so perhaps we will yet see a bill introduced. The Liberals have a minority government at the moment which makes me think it's possible the Conservatives could get it passed.

If this is what you want, bear in mind the Ontario legislature is not in session until November 21st. It will not end the strike this week.

If your thinking is that back-to-work legislation will punish the drivers, I want to point out that this legislation appears to be what the union wants. What back-to-work legislation normally does is mandate both parties submit to binding arbitration, which is precisely what the union called for itself last week. The benefit to the union is that arbitration is likely to grant it concessions beyond what it is able to negotiate with the contractors directly. (And to be clear, it is the taxpayers and the riders—you and I—who will be forced to pay for those concessions.) It might also help validate to the public the notion that the government is whom the union should be dealing with during a strike, which is something the union would like us to believe as part of its attack on privatization.

The government should fire the drivers and replace them with people who want to work.

Firing striking workers is forbidden by Canadian law, as is hiring workers to replace them. If the government forced the contractors to do either of these things it would be viewed as an impingement on workers' rights and the outrage and protests would span the country. The political cost would be enormous. This is not going to happen.

The contractors have failed to provide the service they promised. The Region should cancel their contracts.

I'm always surprised by this line of reasoning because it is not the contractors who have gone on strike. Rather, it is the drivers who are failing to provide service at the moment. And we cannot simply cancel their contract (see above).

Though I don't believe we have access to the agreements between the Region and the contractors, I would be very surprised if they didn't specify procedures for both sides during labour disputes. So it is not necessarily true the contractors have broken any promises, even as the strike continues. (Incidentally, according to the Region contractors are not being paid during the strike, so it is also not as though they are profiting while riders suffer.)

Frankly, I'm amazed by the hostility I've seen directed at the contractors. The contractors appear to have been acting in good faith this whole time and still want to continue negotiations, which is the normal process for resolving a strike. It is the union who is trying to do an end-run around the whole thing, breaking off talks with vague explanations and constantly calling for the government to enter the dispute. Cancelling the contracts would be punishing the side that is actually playing by the rules, not the side that is demanding the rules be changed to their liking.

The government should make public transit in York Region an essential service, like it is in Toronto.

This has been called for by the same MPPs calling for back-to-work legislation. Essential-service designation can only come from the provincial government, so again there is no hope of seeing it before next week.

It seems reasonable transit should be an essential service and this will probably get a lot of discussion once the strike ends. But here again, I've seen comments that suggest essential-service designation is something the union is hoping for. I'm not sure yet why this would be the case, except perhaps that losing the right to strike grants them additional power in some other area. So ending the strike this way might be granting a victory to the union, which could have long-term repercussions for the Region. I'll elaborate on that in a later post.

What else do you think the government should be doing to end the strike? Post a comment below and let me know.


The ATU Pickets the Riders

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 16 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

I have time only for a short post today. The biggest news is clearly the picket lines set up by the union this morning, which have caused significant delays for riders—up to an hour or more, according to the Region. I haven't seen any details reported yet in the media but I'm sure they'll become available.

I'm disgusted by the thought that the union feels riders haven't suffered enough from the strike and are now attempting to make even the 40% of the system still running unusable. What they are really doing is giving us a taste of the fully-public transit model they are championing, in which there will be no division of the network among contractors and a strike will bring the entire system to a halt. If the picketing today was meant to promote the union's anti-privatization agenda (as I speculated on Monday we might see), I think its leaders have miscalculated. I can't fathom who could gain sympathy for the drivers after having been forced by them to spend an extra hour standing on a crowded 99 bus.


Ending the Fourth Week in the Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 18 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

Here we are on day 26 of the transit strike in York Region, soon to reach the end of the fourth week and after that the strike's one-month anniversary. There's been a number of important events in the last few days:

Despite all of this, in practical terms little has changed since the start of the week.

Did I get it right?

On Monday I made a couple of predictions about what we'd see this week. Unfortunately, I think we can safely say I was wrong on both counts.

The government did not continue to wait for the union to come around as I'd thought. Instead, it took action by sending Bill Fisch's letter and, perhaps more importantly, by releasing the letter from Miller Transit. If the contents of Miller's letter are true, it is hard to for me to see the union's demands as reasonable.

But at the same time, the union seems just as far away from settling as it ever was. It did not reveal any new strategy (of which I'm aware) this week, instead continuing its call for contractors to agree to binding arbitration. I haven't noticed the anti-privatization cry getting any louder either.

Next week

Next week marks the beginning of the fifth week of the strike and, on Thursday, its one-month anniversary. Starting Monday I'll be back to my usual posting schedule and will have more to say about this week's events.

Have feedback for me about my blog? Send me an email or post a comment below. (If you'd prefer I not publish your comment, just say so.)


On the Fifth Week of the YRT Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 21 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

Today is day 29 of the transit strike in York Region, the start of the fifth week. This Thursday will mark a full month since 60% of the transit system stopped running.

A Brief Recap

Even now, a full four weeks in, little has changed since the strike began. Negotiations between the union and the contractors remain at a standstill; to my knowledge the two sides have met only once, on November 9th, and without making any progress. At this point, the union is standing by its call for binding arbitration; the contractors have so far refused this and are (together with the regional government) insisting the union return to the bargaining table.

Many have called for the provincial government to intervene, either by introducing back-to-work legislation or by declaring transit in York Region an essential service (as has been done for Toronto), but the Labour Minister has said this is not being considered. Even so, the Ontario legislature is back in session starting today and it is possible we will see a bill introduced this week.

One Small Request

There's one particularly disingenuous notion the union has managed to popularize with the public in this time, and that is that by refusing the union's call for arbitration, the contractors are needlessly prolonging the strike.

Arbitration is not a step towards resolution, as I've seen some people describe it. Rather it is an endgame in the dispute, and one that represents a win for the union. Submitting to binding arbitration is likely to benefit it more than it does the contractors, which of course is precisely why the union wants it so badly.

The contractors have not agreed to arbitration because they know it will work against them. And the government supports the contractors in this, no doubt because they are concerned about the long-term political effects of giving in to the union without a fight.

But by refusing to end the strike this way, the contractors are not exercising any power the union doesn't also have. The union could end the strike immediately, too, if it would simply give up and sign the latest offer from each contractor. But the union won't do this. Why not? Because it believes it is not in its best interest to do so. Which is, of course, the same reason the contractors are not agreeing to arbitration.

So here's my request: If you are going to continue to say the contractors are prolonging the strike by not giving up, show some intellectual honesty and also mention the union is doing the same thing. Of course, saying a dispute would be over if one side would stop fighting isn't saying much at all. So perhaps you could simply stop saying this altogether.

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What Do the YRT Drivers Want?

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 23 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

From the start of the transit strike (which turns a month old tomorrow), the union has said the central issue in the dispute is the wage disparity between transit drivers in York Region and those working in other parts of the GTA. From the original announcement on ATU Local 113's website:

The strike is mainly about the huge wage gap ($7/hour) between York Region Transit workers and those doing essentially the same jobs in surrounding communities: Brampton, Mississauga, Toronto and Durham Region.

From a later announcement by the same local of the rally held outside York Region headquarters on October 28th:

The main issue in the strike is the huge differential in wages and benefits between York Region Transit workers and all other transit workers in the GTA, a wage difference of over seven dollars an hour.

This message was considered official enough to be picked up and repeated by the media. From a CBC News article announcing the start of the strike:

The main issues for York Region Transit workers are wages and benefits. The YRT system contracts out its operations to private companies that pay $7 an hour less than drivers get in neighbouring communities, according to the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Frankly, all of it's enough to make a person think the strike is about wages and benefits.

Every time I make this assumption in a blog post, though, I get a response or two sent to me privately insisting it's not true. Actually, the messages are rarely that polite: The standard format is to first question my intelligence, then demand I get the facts before daring to comment. When I press, though, it invariably comes to light these people have no new facts to present themselves.

That makes it hard to take their comments seriously. But if they're to be believed, it really isn't wages or benefits the drivers intended to be striking over. Rather, it's supposedly working conditions the drivers are actually concerned about. Wages, and possibly benefits too, are secondary.

Lately I've been more inclined to believe this could be true, even though it would seem to contradict nearly all the public dialogue about the strike. Consider the comments of the drivers quoted in a Toronto Star article last week:

There's nothing Viva driver Lesia Horton Milnes says she wants more than to be back at the wheel. Despite the financial hardship of a strike, she says the drivers need to stand up, not for money but for better working conditions.

It's nothing to work 9½ hours and maybe get five minutes (for a break). It's just insane. Last summer was the worst for me. I had several days that were four-trippers—that's a 9½- to 10-hour shift. That is a killer. If you don't have any breaks you're crawling out of the seat at the end of the night, said Milnes.

It's the split shifts that Sherry John finds difficult. Sometimes her work day spans 11 hours. She drives three hours in the morning and then waits in an employee lounge for hours before getting back on the bus.

I get to work at maybe 6:30. When I'm going to work it's dark, when I come back home it's dark, and I've been here five years and I'm still coming and going in the dark, John said.

Are Ms. Milnes and Ms. John representative of the striking drivers? If so, there seems to be a disconnect between what the union is saying and how its members really feel. But perhaps I don't need to speculate about this.

To the angry commenters—who I can only assume are YRT drivers themselves—who have written in, here's your chance to set me straight. What is it you really want out of the strike? If it's not wages or benefits but better working conditions, why is the public hearing a different story?


On the One-Month Anniversary of the YRT Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 24 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

As of today it has been a full month since the buses stopped running in York Region. Little progress has been made toward a resolution in this time. However, there have been two important events in the last day.

The ATU Pickets the Riders, Again

This morning (as I write this, in fact) union members are staging a huge picket line at Finch Station in Toronto, a busy terminal that serves as a transfer point for riders commuting to or from the Region. I imagine it is pure chaos down there.

The union claims the action is motivated in part by comments from York Region MPP Frank Klees regarding a lack of picketing. Ray Doyle, president of ATU Local 1587, is upfront about the union's intention and the impact the picketing will have on riders:

We have generally avoided inconveniencing the travelling public with picket lines but that strategy seems to annoy Mr. Klees. No problem. We will correct that.

This sounds very petty to me. Also, the union's last picket disrupted riders' morning commute as well, causing delays of up to an hour or more. That is (by my reckoning) two of four such actions by the union that's wound up punishing riders, making me question Mr. Doyle's assertion it has generally avoided that type of behaviour.

Supposedly the picketing today is also meant to protest the refusal of the private bus contractors to end the strike immediately by agreeing to binding arbitration—the oft-repeated and disingenuous claim I wrote about on Monday. Naturally the union is silent on how it, too, has so far refused to end the strike. I particularly like this quote from Bob Kinnear, president of ATU Local 113:

It's mysterious why not a single York Region politician is in favour of voluntary arbitration, which would end the strike, says Kinnear.

Readers of my blog might not find this quite so mysterious.

If you saw the picket line at Finch Station today, please post a comment below and tell us what the scene was like.

Meanwhile, in the Provincial Legislature

Many riders got their wish yesterday when back-to-work legislation was introduced in parliament by MPP Peter Shurman, one of the three Conservative York Region MPPs who promised this legislation some time ago. A transcript of the bill's introduction is in the hansard.

Debate on the bill is scheduled for this afternoon, sometime after 1:00. You'll be able to watch the proceedings live on the Web.

People have speculated on the likelihood of this bill passing and what purpose it might actually serve. The Liberal Labour Minister has said she will not support the bill, and while the Liberals have only a minority government the Conservatives do not have enough seats to pass the bill on their own. To do this they'd need cooperation from the NDP, and back-to-work legislation is not something I would normally expect that party to support.

The bill seems so unlikely to pass it's tempting to view the whole thing as a public-relations stunt on the Conservatives' part. Back-to-work legislation normally results in just the kind of binding arbitration the union wants and from which it is likely to benefit. This seems like an odd thing for Conservative politicians to support, but perhaps they are doing so precisely because they are confident the bill has no hope of passing. By simply introducing it, they will have won goodwill from their constituents and possibly dulled the roar of riders accusing politicians of doing nothing.

We'll see what happens this afternoon but I expect the bill will die a quick death, followed by Conservatives capitalizing on the opportunity to lash out at the Liberals over their apparent failure to take action for Region residents.


On the Defeat of Back-to-Work Legislation

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 25 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

Yesterday saw the debate in the Ontario Legislature of the back-to-work bill introduced Wednesday by MPP Peter Shurman. It was defeated by vote, 37 to 67. All the Conservative MPPs in York Region voted for the bill; all the Liberal MPPs in the Region voted against it.

If you have the time and inclination, I recommend reading through the transcript of the debate in the hansard. Alternatively, David Fleischer has written a good summary for YorkRegion.com.

This time my predictions were correct: Not only did the bill die in second reading but—to nobody's surprise, really—the Conservatives did indeed take the opportunity to politick against the Liberals. And not just them but regional Council, too. MPP Frank Klees:

I stand here with my colleagues and I say to the regional government of York region: You have failed the people who elected you. I stand here and I say that whether it is the union, who at least is saying, “Bring in an arbitrator so that we can resolve this”—we now have a Liberal government here, probably all four members who are representing people in York region, who are saying, along with the regional government, “We will wash our hands as well.” Shame on the people who are hearing on a day-to-day basis from the people who are suffering.

The Liberals' position is that negotiations between the contractors and the union are still the best way towards a resolution, and that it would be inappropriate for the provincial government to intervene when Council has not yet requested it do so. MPP Helena Jaczek:

But we have been able to explain to our constituents exactly the process that is being undergone here. We on this side of the House—in this party—clearly believe in collective bargaining and negotiations in good faith as being the best way of settling this type of situation…

I not only respect my constituents, but I respect the duly elected members of regional council. They have not requested that our government move forward. They have not made the type of deputations that the city of Toronto did in the disruption of services from the TTC.

For their part, the NDP seemed to be generally in support of the bill, except for the part designating transit an essential service. MPP Gilles Bisson:

I'll agree with the member who just spoke [Peter Shurman]. But I think what the member should have done is brought in a bill that deals with arbitration and back-to-work. I think if the member had done that, we probably would be in a position to be able to support that bill.

Not surprisingly, considering the NDP's union backing, Mr. Bisson took the opportunity to repeat the ATU locals' call for arbitration:

So there is an option that is open, and that option, I think the fair one, would have been to say that we need to have binding arbitration of some type in order to be able to get the parties to go before an arbitrator in order to settle this at the arbitration table. Will the union be totally happy with what an arbitrator has to say? No. Will the employer be completely happy with what the arbitrator has to say? No. But that's what arbitration is all about. It's about saying, What's your position? What's your position? and the arbitrator going away and saying, Okay, I'm going to look at this from both perspectives, and I'm going to find a saw-off somewhere in the middle. That's what arbitration is all about.

Actually, there's reason to expect the outcome of arbitration will be not quite as equitable as Mr. Bisson would have us believe.

Who Won?

I'm having a hard time figuring out who got what they wanted in this. Clearly not the riders who were hoping to see a legislated end to the strike, although perhaps that could still happen. I suppose the contractors are relieved not to have arbitration forced upon them, as they have the most to lose from that process. The rest is unclear to me.

Did the Conservative MPPs backing the bill get what they wanted? I'm struggling to reconcile the bill's contents with what I know about conservative ideology. Like I said yesterday, it's tempting to think it was never the MPPs' intention to get the bill passed, but only to earn goodwill from their constituents and gain political ammunition against the Liberals (ahead of a non-confidence vote, perhaps?). If that's not the case, I'm not sure what the MPPs' motivation could have been.

Did the union get what it wanted? I don't know if it wanted the bill passed or not. It would have forced the contractors to arbitration, which we know is something it does want. But it would also have made transit in York Region an essential service, and I'm not sure whether the union considers that good or bad. On the whole I think the bill's defeat is most likely a disappointment for the union, as it is another opportunity missed to have arbitration imposed and the union remains stuck not wanting to resume negotiations but without a clear alternative.

Did the taxpayers benefit? Those who are following my blog know I'm against arbitration being imposed. My concerns are, first of all, that transit costs need to be managed carefully; and secondly, that a clear victory for the union in this strike might only encourage more of the same behaviour from it down the road. Whether you as a taxpayer consider the bill's defeat a loss or not probably depends on what you feel it is worth paying to see the strike end at this point.

What's Next?

I'm not sure what the next steps are here—I'm learning about this myself as I go along. Presumably the bill, as it existed, is now dead. My guess is it is still possible we may see a new bill introduced, perhaps one without the essential-services language other members objected to. We won't know until next Monday at the earliest as the legislature is adjourned until then.

Mr. Shurman did note the legislature is only in session until December 8th, after which the MPPs are away on winter recess. That means if back-to-work legislation isn't passed in the next two weeks we may not see any further debate on it until the legislature returns, late in February. Unless the union budges in that time it could be a very cold winter for transit riders.


The Amalgamated Transit Union Wants Your Help

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 29 November 2011 – Comments returning soon

This morning, transit riders attempting to commute using the 40% of the system still operating in York Region were again frustrated by union members picketing the bus yard in Vaughan. Buses were being held for five minutes each, which presumably resulted in the same hour-long delays riders experienced two weeks ago.

The union is promising to make this a regular occurrence. From the CBC:

Local union president Ray Doyle urged frustrated commuters to help them get the transit service back up and running by pressuring politicians to agree to meet them at the bargaining table.

One union organizer promised the disruptions were far from over.

We're not just going to picket once in a blue moon. We're going to be out there. There will be more disruption, it will escalate, he said.

The union's strategy in all this is gradually becoming apparent to me, and it's a strategy I understand has been used for some time by unions in the public sector. It's also one the public-private transit model used in York Region has so far largely foiled, which is undoubtedly one of the main reasons the union is calling for that model to be abandoned.

Key to this strategy is the ability to influence labour policy through electioneering. Jeff Jacoby, a conservative op-ed columnist, has written a number of articles critical of public-sector unions. In What Public-Sector Unions have Wrought, he writes about the differences between collective bargaining in the private and public sectors. The most significant difference, he claims, is that unions in the public sector have the ability to reward and punish politicians—their own employers—through the use of political force. Quoting Roger Lowenstein in his book, While America Aged:

This is because public unions can organize politically and influence elections, which is to say, they can vote their bosses out of office. This gives them direct clout over the people who determine their benefits. By contrast, the [United Auto Workers], for all its muscle, cannot vote the CEO of General Motors out of a job.

Politicians thus face huge temptations to increase benefits. Even though this is costly in the long run, in the short run officeholders are rewarded at the ballot box.

The reason this has not worked well for the union in York Region—witness the comparatively low wages drivers are paid here—is the same reason it does not work for the UAW: Although union members and other York Region residents elect their councillors, none of us elected Veolia, Miller or First Transit, the private companies who operate the transit lines. Neither can we simply vote these companies out of office.

And this, I believe, is why it's so important to union leaders that the Region join them at the bargaining table: Once the politicians are involved the union will be able to wield the force of public opinion against them to get what it wants, threatening any refusal to meet its demands with failure in the next election. So long as the union is forced to negotiate directly with the contractors, it is largely without this power.

But not completely. Already many people are blaming either regional Council or the provincial government for the strike having lasted this long. A letter to the editor recently published on YorkRegion.com is representative:

If YRT general manager Richard Leary cannot act to restore the service he's paid to oversee, perhaps the region would do well to replace him… I have little doubt the taxpayers will be happy to replace many councillors come election time if the region doesn't take action.

The Conservative MPPs who introduced back-to-work legislation last week clearly recognized an opportunity to wield this power for their party's own ends. They've been very careful to pin the blame for the bill's failure on the Liberal government. From a press release issued by MPP Peter Shurman, who introduced the bill in parliament:

As far as I am concerned the McGuinty Government's vote against my Private Member's Bill to end the York Region Transit strike says that they are not concerned about the personal and economic hardship that our residents are experiencing as a result of the labour disruption, said Shurman. I am disappointed that the Liberal government has treated York Region as a second class citizen and refused to give our residents the same protection against transit strikes that those living and working in the City of Toronto enjoy.

The strategy is working; I am already seeing comments on Twitter from people saying they won't be voting Liberal again.

The irony in all this is that it is the politicians these people are protesting who have so far been responsible for keeping the union's power contained.

Now consider again this line from the CBC article quoted above:

Local union president Ray Doyle urged frustrated commuters to help them get the transit service back up and running by pressuring politicians to agree to meet them at the bargaining table.

Of course he did. This is a key part of the union's strategy. Once it has politicians cowed with the threat of the loss of their seat the union will find it much easier to demand, and probably get, whatever it wants.

If this is not what you want, please stop calling for politicians to intervene in the strike. So far Council and the provincial government have successfully frustrated the union's political aspirations by doing nothing. And if you are concerned about what the transit system might look like and what it might cost us once the union is in charge, please join me in allowing politicians to continue doing just that.


More Action from the Union

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 1 December 2011 – Comments returning soon

Today—day 39 of the York Region transit strike—saw more action from the union as members staged picket lines at Richmond Hill Centre and Bernard Terminal, as well as at the Region's headquarters and its building at 50 High Tech Road in Richmond Hill. This is the second such action this week; Tuesday saw picketers outside the bus yard in Vaughan.

It seems the union may be starting to use other tactics as well to build up pressure on politicians. The sidebar to a YorkRegion.com article by David Fleischer reports Richmond Hill residents are receiving an automated phone call asking whether they believe regional councillors should be involved in settling the strike. If the respondent indicates yes, he or she is transferred to a councillor's office line. Presumably this is the same call a commenter on my blog reported receiving a few days ago. Indications are it is the striking ATU locals that are behind this polling.

The union has made it very clear it wants politicians to become involved in negotiations, and we see how it is attempting to recruit the public to help it achieve this goal. As I wrote on Tuesday, we should think carefully before getting involved this way. Pressuring politicians to intervene may get the buses on the road sooner, yes, but there is reason to believe it is part of a larger strategy the union is executing that could shift the balance of power in its favour over the long term. And that could prove very costly for us taxpayers and riders.

On the Subject of Arbitration

Some time ago I linked to another article by Jeff Jacoby, a conservative op-ed columnist, on the subject of public-sector unions and the kind of binding arbitration the union is calling for in the YRT strike. Here's a passage that stands out to me (emphasis mine):

As state and local governments have learned to their chagrin, once binding arbitration becomes part of the collective-bargaining process, it doesn't facilitate compromise—it undermines it. Unions quickly figure out that they risk nothing by making extreme salary or benefit demands, rejecting reasonable counteroffers, and then waiting for the ensuing impasse to go to an arbitrator. How can they lose? They know that the arbitrator will almost never award public employees less than the government's final offer.

Does this sound familiar? The letter from Miller Transit alleged Local 1587 was seeking a 16% raise for its members this year, a demand it could hardly have expected the contractor to agree to. And it's often seemed to me neither of the striking locals was interested in making progress through negotiation, instead pursuing arbitration as their preferred solution rather than the solution of last resort. Is it possible the union never planned to negotiate in good faith, but has been trying to strong-arm us all into a resolution that favours itself at our own expense?

If so, does it make sense to say negotiations have failed?


On the Seventh Week of the York Region Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 5 December 2011 – Comments returning soon

Today marks the start of the seventh week of the transit strike in York Region. Amazingly, there has still been no real progress towards a resolution in this time.

Council Takes a Stand

Two weeks ago, a bill that would legislate the striking transit drivers back to work was introduced in the Ontario Legislature but failed to pass second reading. The Liberal government explained they could not support the bill in part because York Region Council had not yet asked the province to intervene.

On Friday, Council formally announced they will not be making this request. Instead, they are demanding the union return to the bargaining table and resume negotiations with its employers, which is the normal process for reaching an agreement.

This means we will not see the strike ended through back-to-work legislation. In fact Council has said it will not intervene in the dispute at all, answering the union's calls for the government to get involved with a resounding no.

The Union Strikes Back

The union's response to this has been to cause even more trouble for riders. Recall this quote from a CBC article last week:

Local union president Ray Doyle urged frustrated commuters to help them get the transit service back up and running by pressuring politicians to agree to meet them at the bargaining table.

One union organizer promised the disruptions were far from over.

We're not just going to picket once in a blue moon. We're going to be out there. There will be more disruption, it will escalate, he said.

The union has kept its promise. According to CityTV, union members set up picket lines at multiple sites this morning, including Finch Station and Richmond Hill Centre (both important transfer points for riders) and outside the bus yard in Vaughan. Riders were affected both ways: Not only were buses delayed leaving the yard by up to ten minutes each—twice as long as before—they were delayed again after reaching one of the two terminals. Apparently even certain GO routes were affected by the picketing.

Not only has the union made its picketing more disruptive, it has promised to picket every morning this week.

Remember that the purpose of all this is to recruit the public in the union's attack on Council, just as Mr. Doyle is requesting. Once the union has the government at the table it will be able to wield much greater power over how its contracts are awarded, at a cost (possibly tremendous) to us taxpayers and riders. And I strongly believe this has been the union's goal from the very start of this strike.

Thankfully, Council has made the decision not to intervene. What, then, is the union hoping to achieve by continuing to picket? Presumably it's hoping a new groundswell of anger from the riders will force Council to change its mind. I think this is unlikely to happen, though. What is certain is that the picketing will cause a great deal of pain to riders in the interim.

I understand many are angry about the disruption to their commute, and it sounds as though things are going to get even worse over the next few days. But the best thing we can do right now is to be patient and try to wait this out. Placing an angry phone call to your councillor or MPP is what the union wants you to do. Do that and you are allowing yourself to be manipulated. The most effective way to bring the picketing to an end is to show the union it is having no effect.

The union, frustrated that it is not getting what it wants, has decided to lash out at the riders and taxpayers from whom it is demanding a 16% raise this year. Council has decided to stand up to this abuse and deny the union's attempts at circumventing the normal bargaining process. Please support the councillors in doing this.


The Striking Drivers Occupy YRT

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 7 December 2011 – Comments returning soon

Today—day 45 of the York Region transit strike—saw a new tactic employed by the drivers against the public. After first picketing at Richmond Hill Centre this morning as they have done the last couple of days, the drivers began boarding the 99 bus headed to Finch Station, filling the buses so they couldn't take regular passengers. For those not familiar with our transit system the 99 serves the southern end of Yonge Street, connecting York Region to Toronto, and is one of a few critical bus routes still operating. It has seen overcrowding since the strike began and the occupation of these buses—which, according to CP24, was intended to last for hours—would have made this morning's commute impossible for many riders.

So the drivers have found a powerful new way of hurting their former passengers, and we are only halfway through the week. The union promised we would see picketing every morning. What could it have in store for tomorrow and Friday?

As maddening as this is, once again I urge everybody affected by these actions to stay calm and remain patient. The union is trying to anger you into demanding intervention from the regional government, whom it is desperately trying to get involved in negotiations against the councillors' interest and our own. If you do this, you are proving to the union these picketing tactics work. And like the screaming child in the toy store who gets his way, this will only encourage more of the same behaviour down the road.

The Status of Negotiations

On Monday the Region announced the three contractors would be reaching out to the union in an attempt to resume negotiations, and it called for the striking drivers to return to work immediately while the two sides seek an agreement.

The union has responded, saying it is willing to return to the table but will remain on strike until an agreement is reached—or until the contractors give up and agree to arbitration instead, an alternative the union is, of course, still enthusiastically promoting.

Interestingly, both sides are accusing the other of having broken off negotiations first. From an article on YorkRegion.com Monday:

It's kind of a ridiculous statement, Veolia spokesperson Val Michael said. We've been asking them all along to sit down and negotiate (and) we're still ready.

From the union's response, quoting Local 113 president Bob Kinnear:

We tried to resume negotiations weeks ago but were rebuffed by the employers, just so the record is clear on that point.

I've been assuming the contractors have been willing all this time to resume talks. Was I wrong? It's against the contractors' interests to agree to arbitration, but they're also not getting paid while the buses are off the road. It seems natural they would have been eager to get discussions going again. What would they have been holding out for?

It's likely the two sides have much different expectations for negotiations, though, which might explain the finger-pointing. The contractors already know how much money they'll be receiving from the Region; their compensation is fixed once their contract is awarded. I understand that as a result, negotiating for them mostly involves adjusting the allocation of a fixed budget for labour among wages, benefits and whatever other compensation the drivers receive. They are simply changing how the compensation pie is divided up.

This is not what the union wants: It wants a bigger pie altogether, in order to bring the compensation for York Region drivers closer to that of drivers in the surrounding areas. Consequently, the union is likely to blow off (or describe as not serious) any offer from a contractor that doesn't provide a significant increase overall. (We've been told it is demanding a 16% raise in wages this year, for instance.) But the contractors are equally unlikely to take seriously any request along these lines. In the meantime, both sides say the other just isn't cooperating.

This means while it's tempting to view this new call for negotiations as a sign of progress, it seems unlikely much will come of it. Mr. Kinnear shares my skepticism. As reported by Newstalk 1010:

Kinnear says he remains hopeful that a deal will be done, but that he's not holding out hope a deal will be done soon.


ATU Local 1587: "That Wasn't Us"

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 8 December 2011 – Comments returning soon

Yesterday saw the striking YRT drivers reveal a new tactic in their ongoing attack on transit users: At Richmond Hill Centre they began boarding the 99 line headed to Finch Station and occupied those buses for (I believe) the two hours a ticket normally lasts, making them difficult if not impossible for regular commuters to use. We've seen picketing every morning this week, just as the union promised, but before this nothing so aggressive as to attempt to deny service along an entire route.

Predictably, the response from riders was almost universally negative with many criticizing the union for its outrageous behaviour.

Following this I began to notice an interesting pattern in comments around the Internet. To my blog post yesterday about the occupation, a commenter using the alias YRT Driver wrote:

Please do not keep grouping all the drivers together. First off, there are 2 unions involved here.. 113 and 1587. It was Local 113 that was doing the occupy YRT movement this morning. I don't even believe that 1587 was out there today at all! Each local and each group of drivers (with each contractor) all have different demands – which I won't get into.

From a commenter named Adam posting on a CP24 story about the action yesterday:

I would just like to state that the drivers that are doing the riding strike and picketing at night even though their was already a picket during the day is the Local 113/Viva.

The YRT Drivers (Local 1587) Is not doing this. They are only picketing during the days. They did monday and Tuesday at Hill Center - though buses are detoured around there. - and they are not picketing today…

The drivers for the Local 1587 also have no clue where these people are getting the fact they want $30 an hour. they don't. [York Region CEO] Bill Fisch said for some reason - must have been full of hot air - said they wanted parity with TTC they are not. They are asking for parity around York Region.

The notion of wage parity with other GTA workers doesn't originate with Mr. Fisch; that was introduced by Local 113, as I am quite confident anyone as familiar with the strike as Adam would be aware. This is the very first time, nearly seven weeks into the strike, I've heard anyone claim the strikers are interested only in wage parity across the Region.

Incidentally, that CP24 article is itself careful to distinguish between the two locals, but there's an indication it may have been told to do so:

After staging rallies and picket lines off an on during the seven-week strike, workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 crammed onto some YRT buses that haven't been halted by the strike…

Employees represented by ATU Local 1587 don't have any plans to picket Wednesday, officials told CP24.

Finally, this comment from a woman named Cate Cummings attached to the announcement on the Region's Facebook page that the occupation of the buses had ended:

Seems Larry Kinnear and his local 113 did another assinine thing. I know for a fact that Ray Doyle and local 1587 had nothing to do with it.

All of this stands out to me because I have so rarely seen a distinction made between the two locals in articles and comments about the strike, outside the context of negotiations with specific contractors or quotes from individuals. Yesterday it felt like I was suddenly seeing this distinction made everywhere. And while I don't know for a fact the comments above are from Local 1587 members, they don't read to me like the sort of thing a typical rider would post. (How many ordinary people affected by the strike even know there are two separate locals involved?)

Although I'm definitely reaching here, I'm tempted to think Local 1587 realized what a bad PR move the occupy stunt was yesterday and has since been trying to distance itself from it. It may be concerned about the damage Local 113 has done to the public's opinion of the strikers, or it may be worried that for some other reason the action could have an impact on negotiations with its employer. Judging from the comments by YRT Driver and Adam, it also seems interested in making sure the public realizes Local 113's demands are not its own.

Whatever the reason, if my suspicions are correct, this could be a significant event. The union is normally very careful to present a unified front—solidarity is the term they use—and throughout this strike representatives from the two locals have spoken with a unified voice. If this is changing and one local is starting to doubt the other's actions, it could signal an early end to the strike. If either local were motivated to settle with its employer early it could drastically weaken the other's case and quickly lead to service being restored everywhere.

Then again, this could turn out to be nothing. There were apparently pickets at Richmond Hill Centre and the bus yard in Vaughan again this morning, but I've heard nothing about another occupy stunt. Perhaps Local 113 simply agreed it was not a wise move and we won't hear about it again.


Ending the Seventh Week in the YRT Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 9 December 2011 – Comments returning soon

On Monday the transit strike in York Region will have lasted seven full weeks. There are still few signs of progress.

Another Try at Negotiating

David Fleischer's article on YorkRegion.com from earlier this week was updated to report a meeting was held between First Canada and ATU Local 1587 on Tuesday. This would have been the first time members of the two sides have sat down together since Veolia's meeting with Local 113 last month.

Unfortunately (but much as I predicted), the meeting on Tuesday did not go well. From an article in the Toronto Star:

But Local 1587 head Ray Doyle, who represents employees of York's other two contracted bus providers, Miller and First Canada, said no talks are scheduled. He said a 20-minute meeting with a conciliator and First Canada earlier this week was a whole lot of hoopla about nothing.

They're not moving from their position, Doyle said Thursday.

The same article tells us Veolia and Local 113 themselves are preparing to meet on Saturday. Will that session be any more productive?

Meanwhile, at Queen's Park

Elsewhere there are good things happening for transit riders. On Wednesday Progressive Conservative MPP John O'Toole introduced a bill that would create a provincial tax credit for purchasers of transit passes, similar to the credit that exists at the federal level. From the bill's text:

Public transit is an important public good for Ontario which must be promoted.

By encouraging people to use public transit, many benefits result. For instance, harmful greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and traffic congestion and gridlock are eased because fewer motorists will be on our province's roads.

I look forward to seeing our own transit system restored so we can once again enjoy these benefits here in York Region.

I'm away today and will be unable to approve comments until sometime over the weekend. In the meantime, travel safely.


The War on Passengers Continues

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 13 December 2011 – Comments returning soon

Here in the eighth week of the York Region transit strike the war on passengers rages, with what appears to be a series of roaming picket lines set up by union members this morning. The Region has warned of major YRT service delays and apparently two bus routes were shut down altogether.

Yesterday (day 50 of the strike, a milestone I regretfully missed noting) saw another occupation in the morning, with union members boarding buses on both the 99 and 77 lines to prevent their use by ordinary riders. The first time we saw this stunt Local 1587 members seemed eager to pin the blame on their brothers and sisters in Local 113. This time, though, both groups were out and proudly harassing commuters:

Striking members of ATU Local 1587 and Local 113 occupied several YRT buses on Monday morning. About 200 workers boarded the 99 northbound and southbound buses, preventing other passengers from boarding.

We're doing it in a peaceful fashion… for about two to three hours, Tsuji said.

The article tells us Terry Tsuji is part of the Local 1587 bargaining unit, so we can assume its involvement comes from a high level. A fine show of solidarity, I must say. We can safely assume drivers of both locals are now in full support of these ugly tactics, regardless of what they say—otherwise they would have undoubtedly left the union at this point. These are, after all, grown adults we are talking about.

It's unclear to me what the union has to gain at this point by picketing the riders so aggressively. Its leaders have said several times the purpose is to anger riders into pressuring Council to intervene, but it's hard to see that happening now. Not only has Council formally declared they will not get involved, the Ontario Legislature is in recess until late February, putting any sort of back-to-work legislation two months away at least (barring an emergency session of the Legislature being called, I suppose). If the purpose were simply to show the union's ongoing discontent, it could just as easily do that picketing outside its employers' buildings. How can we interpret the union's current actions as anything but a deliberate attack on the people it not only claims to serve but whom will be on the hook for funding the lofty new wages and benefits its members are seeking?


Happy New Year, and a Brief Recap

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 3 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Happy new year! I hope 2012 is off to a good start for you and you were able to make a smooth transition back to work this morning.

Of course, anyone who relies on public transit in York Region for their commute would have been disappointed to discover the transit strike is still going on. We are now on day 72 of limited transit service and, although there has been a fair bit of activity in the last couple of weeks, it seems a resolution to the strike is no closer to arriving than it was at the start.

Here's a quick rundown of what's happened since my last post about the strike:

  • On December 15th the Region announced it would use the tax money saved by keeping the buses parked to provide a month of free transit whenever service resumes. Although some people questioned whether this was the best use of the money, it occurred to me this has the benefit of providing a buffer between passengers and drivers once they are back on the job—probably a good thing considering the anger many passengers will be feeling.

  • Shortly before Christmas there were two meetings between contractors and the union locals. On the 21st, First Transit met with Local 1587; on the 23rd, Veolia met with Local 113. Neither meeting was productive, with (predictably) each side accusing the other of not cooperating.

  • Also shortly before Christmas, the union announced it would be taking a break from picketing over the holidays. I'm sure I saw a headline to that effect, though I can't find a source now. Perhaps the announcement was retracted because at the same time the Region announced it would seek an injunction from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against practices it described as unlawful picketing by union members.

    The timing was impeccable, as it would appear the picketing ended as soon as the Region sought an injunction—as though the picketing had been illegal all along, and the Region brought an end to it. That's not true. However, the Superior Court did approve the injunction, imposing guidelines on how union members will be allowed to picket at transit terminals and elsewhere.

  • On January 1st higher transit fares came into effect, raising the adult cash fare by twenty-five cents to $3.50. It should be noted the fare raise was approved by Council before the union went on strike, though this is little comfort for disgruntled riders who see prices going up while the available service goes down.

  • First Transit announced that as a result of the strike it will be temporarily laying off some of its administrative staff effective today. Much is said about the needs of the drivers, but we should remember the private companies to which transit operations are contracted are themselves staffed by ordinary workers who are trying to hold down a job and provide for their family and they, too, are affected by the strike.

I'll have more to say about these things over the next week or so. I doubt there'll be much other strike-related news to write about, since each of the sides in the dispute seems to be more deeply entrenched than ever. None of them appears to have much incentive to back down at this point. It feels like we're simply waiting to see who blinks first.


The Latest Offers Go to Vote

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 5 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Despite my prediction on Tuesday it turns out there is news to write about in the York Region transit strike. Potentially good news, too.

A ruling from the Ontario Labour Relations Board is forcing a vote on the latest offer from two of the contractors, Miller and Veolia, by members of the striking ATU locals tomorrow. If, as I'd presumed, union leaders have been purposefully keeping their membership from voting on offers (despite their posturing to the contrary), this has foiled their plan. Should the membership approve these offers, the strike would effectively be over. (Even if only one offer were approved, I expect this would weaken the union's position enough to precipitate a quick end to the strike generally.)

The sentiment among the drivers seems to have shifted a few times. Comments I saw around the Web in early December gave me the impression a growing number were tiring of the strike and would have accepted the latest offers had they been given the chance to do so. Since the union leaders were no closer to accomplishing their political goals than they'd been at the start I expected they'd do everything they could to prevent a vote from happening—which the headlines seemed to confirm. My initial thought when I heard the contractors had managed to force a vote was that we were surely entering the endgame of the dispute.

Now, I'm not so certain. Most people seem to believe the offers will not be approved. Comments from drivers around the Web have regained their confrontational tone; it's been weeks since I saw any calling out for a chance to vote. This could be simply the result of increased discipline from union leaders, although I wonder what effect attrition may have had on the composition of the membership. We're told many drivers have given up waiting for a resolution to the strike and found work elsewhere. Almost by definition, the ones who are left will be those best able to wait out a lengthy strike and most in support of the union's political ambitions. If these people now represent a majority of the locals' membership, there's little hope of seeing any contractor offer approved by vote.

However, we'll have to wait to see what happens. Michael Suddard pointed out to me the Viva strike in 2008 was ended by a vote from the membership on an offer they'd already seen (the same offer that led them to strike, apparently). It's possible the same thing could happen here. We should know soon.


ATU Local 1587 Rejects the Latest Offer

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 10 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Today is day 79 in week 12 of the York Region transit strike. (While I'm sure no one expected the strike to last this long, we're actually still some distance away from setting a record. We're creeping up on the 94-day transit strike in Vancouver in 1984, but are still a ways behind the 128-day strike there in 2001 and of course the nine-month strike in Quebec City in 1979.)

By now everyone knows the members of ATU Local 1587 voted down the last offer from Miller Transit on Friday, 196 to 38. Ninety-two percent of the membership voted, so clearly I was wrong in thinking the union leaders didn't actually have the membership on their side. Members of Local 113 won't be voting on the latest offer from Veolia until the 17th (I was also mistaken on that date in my last post), but I think we can safely assume that offer will be rejected, too.

It's hard for me to imagine what's going to change at this point to bring the strike to an end.

  • The union would like to dismantle the public-private partnership model used in the Region, so I think it's unlikely it will agree to any offer from a contractor—especially at this point, after more than eleven weeks of striking, when it desperately needs to score a win to make the sacrifice appear to have been worthwhile. (I'm pretty sure the specific details of the contracts being negotiated are immaterial at this point, though gains there—such as the additional health-care premium subsidy Local 113 appears to be holding out for—may end up being what the union leaders settle for to save face.) For the same reason, it'll continue to beat the drum for arbitration as a neutral way to settle the dispute, which even were it not to bring any gains for union members would still establish in people's minds the fiction that private contractors just can't be dealt with.

  • The Region, of course, wants to maintain its sovereignty and defend the public-private model, and will resist doing anything that would hand over power to the union. (Union supporters like to point out York Region CEO Bill Fisch was never elected by the people to run the transit system, but we should remember the same is true of the Local presidents, Bob Kinnear and Ray Doyle, both of whom want to refashion the system to their liking.)

  • The private contractors naturally want to preserve as much of their profit from the Region as they can, as they have already agreed to the maximum amount of revenue they can expect from taxpayers. They will not operate services here at a loss, so there is naturally a certain point past which they will not make further concessions to the workers. (People in favour of a completely public model complain about the huge tax subsidies poured into transit in the Region currently, but if it is impossible for private contractors to operate services here at a profit, why should anyone expect the government to be able to?)

Meanwhile, the taxpayers and transit users—the people actually funding the entire dispute—remain essentially powerless, while the union adds insult to injury by continuing to picket the bus terminals and the buses themselves every morning.


The Region Takes Action

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 13 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Yesterday the Region announced it would start using the large, articulated Viva buses to service route 99 along Yonge Street, a sight that may have surprised commuters this morning. Unfortunately, despite appearances this does not mean Viva Blue service has been restored: The Viva buses will be making the same stops as the regular 99 buses, which also means they won't be travelling north of Bernard Terminal. However, their larger size should help alleviate the overcrowding that's plagued the 99 since the start of the strike. Also, as others have pointed out, this should make the union's occupation antics less effective, more expensive or both.

This seemed like such a positive development I knew right away there would be lots of complaining about it—and I wasn't disappointed. The Region's post announcing it on Facebook was immediately pounced on by angry commenters saying it was a weak plan, that it would accomplish nothing and that it was all a cynical ploy by the government to make more money (though how, exactly, it would achieve this wasn't spelled out). That comment thread has now grown to over 300 posts, the largest we've seen on that page for a while.

Wilson Lo, one of just a few other people blogging about the strike, was particularly outraged by the Region's attempt to improve the situation for commuters. From his post this morning, Bill Fisch and York Region are an absolute joke:

With this transit strike raging into its 82nd day, the public does not need another joke from a bad excuse for a regional government and its $203,000-a-year chairperson who might as well just be a chair. At least a chair is more useful in function.

Surprisingly, though he clearly pins the blame for this recent misadventure on the York Region CEO, he is silent on what he thinks Mr. Fisch should have done differently and on what the possible consequences of a more aggressive plan might have been. Perhaps he'll address these things in a future post.

One thing I've been startled to see is the amount of criticism aimed at the drivers who are commandeering the Viva buses. Again, Mr. Lo:

The drivers who are still working have had little training on these articulated VanHool buses… Did I also mention the weather forecast is calling for snow tomorrow? Now not only do these drivers have to manage driving a totally new bus, but also manage it in poor driving conditions. I can only imagine how much trouble the uphill southbound Yonge south of Clark is going to be.

Even their brothers and sisters in the union seem to have little faith in their ability. Consider this comment on Facebook yesterday from Kathy Breen, one of the drivers on strike:

I certainly wouldn't board any of these buses.With 2 hours training for these YRT drivers,when VIVA drivers are properly trained in them for weeks…need I say more! Safety obviously isn't in the public's best interest. Maybe a quick solution but NOT a safe one in my opinion.

A surprising position considering union members have often cited their allegedly high level of skill to defend the wage increases they're demanding. (For anyone actually concerned about a possible safety issue, CityNews.ca informs us the drivers are being accompanied by driving instructors today.)

Most interesting to me, though, is the political shift hinted at by the Region's announcement.

A Division in the Ranks?

Generally, the Region has maintained a very hands-off attitude throughout the strike, insisting the dispute is solely between the contractors and the union and that it will not intervene.

With yesterday's announcement, however, it seems this might be changing. The wording of the announcement clearly suggests the Region is losing faith in the bargaining process—or perhaps in the contractors themselves—and that it intends to start becoming more involved, perhaps to finally fend off criticism that it is doing nothing while transit users suffer. From the announcement:

The unions and contractors have had ample time to negotiate a fair agreement, said Chairman Fisch. We are taking measures to restore as much service as possible, placing our riders at the forefront by putting larger buses in service, getting our commuters out of the cold and where they need to go.

Of particular note is the three-point list of actions the Region is taking to provide as much service as possible. In addition to placing Viva buses on route 99, it seems the Region plans to place additional pressure on the contractors to find ways of restoring service without running afoul of Canada's labour laws. But the third point really stands out to me:

Further examine the terms and conditions of our contracts with York BRT Services, Miller Transit and First Canada, with a specific focus on additional remedies to improve transit service

It's hard not to interpret this as a veiled threat directed at the contractors: Find a way to move forward in the dispute, or we'll find a way to… well, do what, exactly? Is it possible the Region is considering how it might sever the contracts, as the union is demanding? Perhaps it is simply threatening to find other ways it can lean on the contractors, punishing them through the legal system if they're not able to get productive negotiations going. But considering how well-entrenched both sides are now, I can't think what the contractors might do that wouldn't involve acceding to the union's demands. And while many people believe that's the right thing to do anyway, I can't see it as being in the region's long-term interest.

While the union has often accused the Region of colluding with the contractors, the Region now seems prepared to drive a wedge in that relationship and establish a position of its own in the dispute. This is arguably a good thing, but I have to wonder what is motivating it. I'd hate to believe councillors are starting to give in to the pressure the union is placing on them, in the media and through its picketing efforts. We know where that leads.

In the meantime, if you experienced the commute this morning on the 99 route, I hope you'll post a comment below and tell us what the experience was like. Do you think this was a good move by the Region?


On the Thirteenth Week of the York Region Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 18 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Today is day 87 of the transit strike here in York Region. We're now in the middle of week 13, which has already seen two important events.

ATU Local 113 Rejects Veolia's Offer

Although this was so widely expected it hardly qualifies as news, Local 113 members voted yesterday to reject Veolia's latest offer. This is the vote Veolia requested through the Ontario Labour Relations Board, as they had the right to do, and the counterpart of sorts to the vote by Local 1587 members on the sixth.

The real news came earlier in the week.

The Region Fires First Canada

On Monday the Region announced it has terminated its contract with First Canada, which previously operated bus routes in the northern division (routes north of Bernard Avenue). It also announced it will be hiring a new contractor to take First Canada's place and plans to restore service on route 98 on February 5th, with other routes to follow. (For people not familiar with our transit system, the 98 is another critical route that operates on Yonge Street and connects the southern part of Richmond Hill to its north and to other municipalities in the region, including Aurora and Newmarket.)

So now I have the answer to my question about whether the Region would threaten the contractors with termination of their contracts. I was surprised to hear the news as I figured this was what the Region was least likely to do. Now we know it means business.

The government clearly intends this as a warning to the other two contractors as well, both of whom it has asked to deliver a detailed plan by this Friday of how they might restore transit service elsewhere while the strike continues.

It appears the Region already has a replacement in mind for First Canada, considering it is announcing the resumption of service even though Council has yet to approve a new contract. Whom could it be? David Fleischer suggests Tokmakjian/Can-Ar as a possibility. Internet provocateur Forrest Grump thinks it could be Miller, despite their ongoing dispute with Local 1587, due to their experience and presence in the Region. We'll have to wait until the 26th to know for sure.

So What Does It Mean?

Judging from the comments on news stories quite a few people are assuming this means the strike is over for the Local 1587 members previously employed by First Canada, since those jobs simply don't exist anymore. Some are also assuming the Region can now start fresh with a different contractor for the north division, one that won't be obligated to hire back the former drivers or deal with the union at all.

It looks like this is, at most, only partially true. Under Canadian law, when one contractor is replaced with another the union's bargaining rights normally carry over. So I don't think it's true that whichever contractor the Region has in mind to take over the north division is automatically free and clear of the union.

However, it also appears the new contractor won't be obligated to hire back the former drivers. From the previous link (emphasis in the original):

Although the new employer assumes responsibility for the collective agreements associated with the undertaking being sold or transferred, the number of employees receiving job offers is outside the scope of successor rights and is strictly a matter for negotiation between the two employers. Traditionally, Public Service transfers involving succession have resulted in job offers to most affected employees.

If the loss of ridership expected after nearly three months of striking means fewer runs are made, not every former employee could receive an offer. Quoted in the Toronto Star, Local 113 President Bob Kinnear acknowledges drivers are worried:

We're cautiously optimistic that (Region Chair) Bill Fisch will begin to address the workers' concerns and get a collective agreement, said Kinnear, although he admitted that his members couldn't help but be shaken by the termination of York's contract with First Canada.

The morale here has been overwhelming, but how could it not have an impact? he said.


On the Fourteenth Week of the York Region Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 23 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Today is day 92 of the transit strike in York Region, now in the start of its fourteenth week.

I'm happy to say that for once, there seems to be good news arriving from every direction. As David Fleischer wrote this morning, this stands to be the most eventful week of the entire dispute. Here's what's going on:

Considering all this, I am cautiously optimistic we are now entering the endgame of the dispute, a full thirteen weeks after it began. And it seems all it took was the Region finally flashing a bit of its power.

What's Being Discussed?

One thing I'm very curious about is what's actually being talked about in the negotiations going on between each local and its employer. Previously the two sides seemed to be at a complete impasse, my impression being that the union was demanding greater total compensation for its members while the contractors were adamant about containing their labour costs.

Suddenly this impasse seems to have cleared, at least between Local 1587 and Miller. What's changed? My first thought was that one side or the other has started to give in—either the union is saying it will now accept a compromise on some front, or the contractor has agreed to expand its budget for labour. The problem with this idea is that even now, neither side seems to have much incentive to budge.

As a commentor named Some1 pointed out a while back, there are not many companies either equipped to provide transit service here or interested in doing so, making Miller's and Veolia's position fairly secure. On top of this, the Region actually rents garage space for some of its buses from Miller, giving that company additional leverage. So I doubt the contractors are feeling all that intimidated right now, even after having watched First Canada get the axe.

However, the union has now spent so much time on strike it really needs a big win to save face publicly and with its members. It has almost nothing to lose by continuing to hold out for the best deal it can possibly get—the opportunity has long since passed for it to accept a modest gain and rationalize it as a stepping-stone for the future. Speaking of which, it will be years before the contract renewals line up in such a way that the union has as much leverage as it had in October to make demands. So it's basically now-or-never for the two locals.

Of course, more cynical interpretations are possible. Perhaps the contractors really have been as selfish and greedy as the union has said, and they are now realizing they have no choice but to loosen their purse strings. Or perhaps the union really has been avoiding useful negotiation by playing a game of move-the-goalposts, and they now realize they are going to have to begin taking the process seriously.

We should know the outcome within a few days.


ATU Local 113 and Veolia Reach a Tentative Agreement

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 25 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

By now I expect most people will have heard the good news: A tentative agreement was reached last night between Local 113 and Veolia. This doesn't mean the strike is over, but if the agreement is ratified by the membership in a vote tomorrow we could see Viva service resume on February 4th.

Note this agreement only relates to Viva service. We won't know until tomorrow's Council meeting what the Region's plans are for restoring service in the north division, and there is no word yet of an agreement between Local 1587 and Miller for the southeast division—although as I've said many times, I expect if one local returns to work the other will follow soon thereafter.

As a result I'm pretty sure we're seeing the end of the strike play out right now. I have no doubt Local 113 members will approve the agreement tomorrow. The union leaders are recommending they vote yes, and Local president Bob Kinnear has been emphatic lately that he has the members on his side. But the drivers must also be aware there's more at stake this time around. As Abdurahman Ibrahim wrote on Facebook yesterday:

If they reject this coming offer, chances are the contract between York BRT and York Region will be terminated and the viva workers will likely be out of work. So it's decide to give up this strike or sign the pink slip and be future endeavored.

I think there's a lot of truth to that.

Incidentally, it's just this sort of pressure that has both locals appearing in front of the Ontario Labour Relations Board today. They're protesting the timing of the Region's dismissal of First Canada, which happened just two days before last week's vote by Local 113 on an offer from Veolia. Although the members voted to reject that offer, the decision was not as unanimous as it had been in Local 1587's rejection of Miller's offer the week prior. And that surprised me considering Local 113 appears to be the more militant of the two.

Simultaneously, the Region is seeking redress for what it claims are violations of the injunction it won last month to place limits on the union's picketing activity. To what extent these two things are related, I'm not sure. But even though an agreement between the union and the contractors is drawing near, the union and the Region are continuing to spar through the legal system.


The York Region Transit Strike Nears its End

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 27 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

We are definitely in the final days of the strike now. Yesterday, ATU Local 113 members approved the tentative agreement reached with Veolia on Tuesday; Regional Council approved a new contract with TOK Transit Ltd., a subsidiary of Tokmakjian, as First Canada's replacement to provide transit service in the north division; and Local 1587 announced it has reached a tentative agreement with its employer, Miller Transit, on which members are expected to vote this Saturday.

Strictly speaking, the strike won't be over unless that vote passes. However, as before, I have no doubt it will. All the pieces are falling into place for transit service to start up again.

Already the Region has announced Viva service will resume February 4th. Service in the north division is being phased in over time in as TOK gets up and running, but the latest is that we can expect service on route 98 starting February 5th with route 55 to resume February 12th. We don't know yet when buses in the southeast division might be rolling again, but it seems reasonable to think if the agreement is ratified this Saturday we might see service there by February 4th as well.

That's about all the information that's been released so far. We don't know yet anything beyond a few details of the agreement between Local 113 and Veolia, and nothing has been said about the tentative deal between Local 1587 and Miller. Hopefully some of this will become known over the next week.


The York Region Transit Strike is Over

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 31 January 2012 – Comments returning soon

Everyone by now knows the good news: On Saturday members of Local 1587 voted 80% in favour of approving a tentative agreement with Miller Transit, effectively bringing the 97-day strike to an end. (This means we beat the 94-day strike in Vancouver in 1984, but not the 128-day one there in 2001.)

Details of service resumption are starting to emerge. Here's what we know:

  • Viva service on all lines will resume this Saturday, February 4th.
  • Route 98 will run again starting one day later, February 5th.
  • Route 55 will run starting February 12th.

No date has been announced for the southeast division, but I expect there'll be service again there by this weekend or early next week.

Update: Only Viva Blue and Purple will be operating this Saturday. Routes 98 and 55 will both be operating on the 4th, as the Region had originally announced. Southeast-division routes start up again this Saturday and Monday. See the Region's service-resumption page for details on which routes are resuming when.

A Month of YRFree

The Region is standing by their promise of free bus service once the strike is over and say they'll be releasing the details of their plan later this week.

Previously there was talk of a free month of service, but I think the Region's going to surprise us by announcing they're extending that period. There ought to be the money to allow it, considering the strike stretched on more than five weeks past their original announcement. And their latest announcement makes no reference to a free month, instead promising a minimum one month of free service. I bet we'll see free—well, fareless—transit in the region for six weeks or longer.

A separate question is when the free period will start. It probably won't be tomorrow, the first day of February, since bus passes for the month have already been sold and most services won't be running for at least a few more days. Despite what I speculated earlier I doubt it'll start mid-month, either; that'd just be too confusing for people. So perhaps March is a more likely target.

The problem with this is that most routes in the north division might still not be running then. TOK has until April 29th to finish putting buses on the road—not that it's expected to take that long, but it conceivably might. So the easiest and most equitable thing would be for the Region to start the free-service period on the first of May.

I don't really think the Region is going to make us wait that long, though. We should know how they're addressing all this within a few days.

Update: We didn't have to wait long. Shortly after I posted this the Region announced two months of free transit service, starting this Saturday, February 4th, and lasting through to March 31st. February bus passes will be honoured in April or can be returned to YRT for a refund.


Two Months' Free Travel on York Region Transit

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 2 February 2012 – Comments returning soon

Right after I published my last blog post speculating about it, the Region finally revealed their plan for providing free transit service now that the strike is over. They've also provided a chart showing when service will be restored on each line. Here's the summary:

  • Viva Blue and Purple will be running again this Saturday, with Viva Pink and the Blue A variant following on Monday.
  • Routes 98 and 55 in the north division will start on Saturday. School specials and several other routes will start Monday.
  • All of the regular routes in the southeast division will be operating Saturday as well. Express routes, GO shuttles and school-special routes will resume on Monday.

What about the remaining routes, you ask? Those won't be running again until the end of the month—February 26th or 27th. This includes eight lines in the north division and, somewhat bafflingly, Viva Green and Orange as well.

As Deborah Smerek pointed out on Twitter, this means some transit users—particularly those in the northern part of the region, but perhaps some York University students as well—still have another month to wait before the strike will be over for them, after which they'll have only one month of free travel to enjoy. So far, the Region hasn't announced any plans to extend the free period for those routes to compensate. This means that as things stand, riders in the southwest division—where drivers were never on strike—will actually benefit more than some riders in the north division, who will have been without bus service for more than four months by the time it resumes.

There is a little more good news to share, however. The Region has confirmed that free travel is available across the entire YRT system:

Remember, free rides also apply to Dial-a-Ride, Mobility Plus, TTC routes in York Region, GO Route 69 - Sutton GO Bus and YRT routes that were still operating in the Southwest Division throughout the strike.

I would assume you'll still need to deposit a TTC token or show a Metropass to travel south of Steeles on a TTC bus.

Also, the the service-resumption page has been updated with details (at the bottom) of how to return your February bus pass for a refund. Returned passes will be accepted until March 31st, a far more sensible window than we were given the last time around.

...But Behave Yourselves

According to YRT general manager Rick Leary, speaking to the Toronto Star, police officers and security guards will be visible throughout the transit system over the next while as service is restored. I have to assume this is meant to deter passengers who might be thinking of lashing out at the drivers they hold responsible for the tremendous inconvenience and personal cost of the last few months.

There's no doubt drivers are worried about what might happen. Just yesterday we saw this comment on a news article from the wishfully named FacingForward:

Sometimes, when you are a part of a union, you are forced into striking when you personally don't want to. I really hope that when service resumes, passengers don't make any rude or offensive comments to any drivers. The people on the front lines always take the brunt of the heat, but if passengers really want to speak out about this, they should contact the corporate office about it.

Yes, because it absolutely was the corporate office yelling and screaming at passengers when it wasn't simply denying them service on functioning routes altogether. Blame where it belongs, people.

Resident commenter YRT Driver was thinking of his hide all the way back in December:

In addition, when the buses are finally back on the road, I hope that the public does NOT backlash against drivers as some people have mentioned because you may be back lashing on that innocent driver who was always on the side of the rider and was completely against the way the union is handling this.

Ah yes, the innocent driver, the poor soul who hated the union's actions and was forced to watch helplessly—helplessly!—as it tore apart the goodwill he had built up over time with his passengers, and who now has no choice but to reluctantly accept the signing bonus, higher wage and increased benefits with which the harrowing three-month affair has burdened him. This man deserves not your hatred, but your pity—if only you could see how it breaks his heart every time he uses an ATM.

Unwarranted appeals to the public's sympathy notwithstanding, bear in mind that attacking a bus driver is far more likely to land you with a criminal record than it is to change anything about the state of labour relations here in York Region. So take Forrest's words to heart:

The driver on the bus says Take your seat, not a peep, the deal was cheap


Four Good Things from the York Region Transit Strike

Posted in Public Transit, York Region on 3 February 2012 – Comments returning soon

Today's the last day of strike-level service across the transit system here in York Region. Tomorrow morning most regular weekend routes will be running again, with most of the rest of the system starting up again on Monday. That means for the majority of transit users in the area Monday morning will be a normal commute once again. At last!

In an effort to make up for the inconvenience and expense to residents over the last three months, the Region is allowing riders to board the YRT free-of-charge from tomorrow until the end of March. Not everyone is happy with this, though. Some people are saying the two free months are not compensation enough, while others are calling out the Region for not providing the full benefit to everyone.

Despite these complaints and the sheer aggravation of the last three months for many, I want to try to end things on a positive note. In that spirit I present to you my list of four good things that have come out of the strike for me:

  1. More exercise. I rely on transit to get around—I got rid of my last car a few years ago—so naturally, when the buses aren't running there's usually no option for me but to hoof it. This meant a lot more time spent outside moving my feet, which can only have had a positive effect on my health. It's also expanded my definition of walking distance considerably. And as luck would have it, the gods of winter transit strikes smiled upon us and saw fit to keep the weather unseasonably mild for almost the whole duration, so most of the time I even enjoyed it.

  2. Better knowledge of the transit system. Every single one of the bus routes I normally take wasn't running during the strike, so leaving the neighbourhood meant becoming intimately acquainted with alternate routes that were still available. This turned out to be a great thing, though. I'd never taken the time before to figure out the TTC routes operating here in York Region, but with the strike they became essential for getting in and out of the city. Now I know there are not one but two TTC buses that go by my place and terminate on the subway line. I've also found a more direct route over to Richmond Hill, as well as an express bus to Finch Station that stops just a few blocks from home. So ironically, three months without buses ended up making me a more capable user of the transit system.

  3. Lots of practice blogging. Since the strike started I've written 34 posts about it, including this one. (You can start from the beginning and work your way forwards if you're curious how the whole thing played out.) This has been great practice writing for me, and I hope at least a few others have enjoyed having someone commenting semi-regularly on the events of the strike.

    Of course, blogging about the strike brought another huge benefit as well.

  4. The people I've met. Easily the best part of the last three months has been getting to connect with other transit users in the area: Forrest, Tracy, Michael, Daniel, OP, Alyssa, Alana, Mike (and his many aliases), Erin, Julie, Deborah and everyone else who's commented on my blog, responded to my tweets or written to me about the strike. Thank you all very much. It's been great talking with each of you. Let's get a drink sometime.

What's Next for Me?

For the vast majority of people in the Region the transit strike is over effective tomorrow, and so is my blogging here about the strike. I'll be returning to writing about my normal life as an independent software developer.

However, I don't intend to stop blogging about transit issues here in York Region—I'm just shifting venues to a new site I'm starting, Ride York, where I plan to gather together news and information about the YRT and also explore a few ideas I've had for transit-related applications. If you're a transit user in York Region and have enjoyed reading my posts I hope you'll follow me as @rideyork on Twitter and at the new blog once it's available. I'll update this post later with the details.

Update: The blog is now live! Come visit at http://blog.rideyork.ca/. Or, if you prefer, subscribe to the RSS feed in your reader.

Again, thank you all for reading and commenting. See you on the bus!