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2008 04 20
Why I Support a TTC Strike

Have you ever walked a picket line? If you have, then you know the camaraderie that can emerge, the rare sense of standing for a common principle. You also know the tedium that develops after days or weeks, broken occasionally by violence or news from the bargaining table. If you've walked a picket line you're also familiar with the costs: physical and emotional exhaustion, the often irrecoverable hit to your income, the impact on labour relations, and perhaps above all, the costs to the people affected by the strike -- coworkers, the public, and all the other institutions and individuals whose activities are derailed as the result of a strike.

If the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), representing nine thousand TTC workers, acts on the strike mandate given to it by its members, then tomorrow morning at 4:00 am the TTC will cease to operate. No subways or buses will run. The stations will be shuttered. The 1.5 million people who rely on the TTC to get to work or school will be forced to find other ways of commuting on roads choked with cars, bicycles and pedestrians.

Media reports have focused on the inconvenience a strike will cause for commuters. This morning's Toronto Star headline blares, provocatively, "Is TTC an Essential Service?" Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has muttered obliquely that the Province may introduce legislation to make it so, and indicated more coherently that back-to-work legislation would likely bring a quick end -- although perhaps not within a week or two -- to any strike action. Mayor David Miller, being feted all week in China, is staying -- at least publicly -- out of the fray. That's not a surprise: in the coming months he's got even bigger negotiations looming with the two huge CUPE locals representing tens of thousands of city staff, and isn't likely to show his hand unless forced to do so.

I don't buy any of these claims. I don't find "inconvenience" a legitimate reason to oppose a strike, nor do I consider it adequate justification have a service declared essential. I find the Mayor's self-imposed absence from the bargaining table reprehensible, especially at a time when he should be doing everything possible to broker a settlement. I am ambivalent about back-to-work legislation, but acknowledge its value if (and only if) a strike or lockout goes on so long that the public interest becomes genuinely compromised.

The right to strike is one of the most fundamental labour rights. It is -- like the right to join a union and bargain collectively -- enshrined in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. A strike is a legally protected course of action when, after the term of a collective agreement has expired, properly conducted negotiations do not produce a new one. Unions may go on strike only if a strike vote is held and only if the majority of those voting support a strike.

In the case of the TTC workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, the collective agreement has expired. The union has been in negotiations for months. In a strike vote, over 99% of those voting supported a strike, and the ATU has been in a legal strike position since April first. The union has indicated it would give the public advance notice of any strike action, and it has done so, announcing several days ago that if a settlement is not reached by 4:00 this afternoon, the union will commence strike action at 4:00 tomorrow morning. Both parties acknowledge that, despite prolonged talks and the presence of provincial mediators, progress at the bargaining table has stalled. Under these circumstances it would be difficult to describe the ATU's action as precipitous or premature.

I will support the TTC workers in the event of a strike. I will do so even though, like 1.5 million other Torontonians, I depend on the TTC to get around the city. I don't drive, and am rapidly becoming too pregnant to be able to depend on my bike as a mode of transportation. My ability to do my job, attend important medical appointments, shop and socialize will be compromised. In short, a strike will inconvenience me.

But it seems to me that an inability to strike would be a far greater inconvenience. Unions are largely responsible for the job security, wages and working conditions that employees -- and not just those in unions -- enjoy. The benefits unions win for their members tend to spill out across the non-unionized workforce as well, through legislation such as the Employment Standards Act as well as through pure labour economics -- wages and benefits across a sector tend to improve for all employees when they go up for unionized workers.

Moreover, declaring the TTC workers an essential service -- and thus depriving them of the right to strike in exchange for arbitrated contracts -- would ultimately involve a trade-off that might be more inconvenient to taxpayers' wallets than negotiated settlements punctuated by the occasional strike, given that most essential workers command higher wage premiums by virtue of being so designated.

I'll also support TTC workers because one of them is my neighbour, a bus driver with three kids under the age of ten, who contributes to local soccer programs and does his own renovations on the weekends. Who navigates Toronto's clotted streets every day on the job, dodging angry drivers and challenging riders who put dimes instead of tokens into the fare box; who risks getting spit upon or shot at or blamed for a late bus stuck in traffic; and who will walk the picket line acutely aware of what it will cost to do so.

Above all, though, I'll support TTC workers in the event of a strike because I believe in their fundamental right to do so.

[Amy Lavender Harris is the daughter of a Teamster. She has also been a union president and chief negotiator, and once spent 78 days captaining a picket line. She holds a master's degree in Industrial Relations from the University of Toronto.]

[2007 TTC strike image by David Topping and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 04/20 at 09:34 AM

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