By Christina Cheng
It’s 7:30 on a Monday morning. The hustle and bustle of the morning rush have begun. Newspaper stands are half empty. There is not a seat on the subway or even room to stand. Hundreds of people are packed in every subway car, shoulder to shoulder, back to back trying to get to work or school in time.
The TTC is the country’s largest public transit system providing service to over 1.3 million people a day in Toronto.
Is it safe to say that the TTC should be considered an essential service?
Ontario’s Liberal government announced last Tuesday a prohibition on strikes by Toronto Transit Commission workers, declaring the transit system an essential service.
The government and the city are looking to have this declaration officially passed before the first labour contracts expire at the end of March.
A TTC driver for the Malvern Division in Scarborough who only identified himself as Paul W., says he’s not happy about the decision.
“As a union, it’s your own way to get people to listen when everything else fails. It’s either you strike or for years to come your job is in smoke!” he said.
With their right to strike taken away, Paul worries about his and his co-workers’ safety on the job.
“Have you ever been spat on? Abused at your job for no apparent reason?” he asked. “One woman in the union is now half deaf because of a rider who was having a bad day and decided to punch her in the ear continuously. So are you saying we have no right to strike for our safety? For our benefits?”
The government argues that a city as large as Toronto cannot afford to grind to a halt when buses, subways, and streetcars aren’t running.
Vikas Gupta, a student at Centennial College HP campus in Scarborough, relies solely on the TTC.
“I totally depend on TTC for my convenience to school, to my job, and even for my weekend groceries,” Gupta said sitting on the 38 Highland Creek bus heading to school.
Paul doesn’t agree with making public transportation an essential service when he believes people have other means of getting around.
“If there’s no bus there’s taxis, bikes, and people can walk. So when you can walk and you are not stranded then it’s not essential,” he said. “Everything in North America is essential because we’re spoiled,” he expressed loudly, gesturing animatedly with his arms.
Due to a recent experience from the 2008 TTC strike, it has shown that TTC workers have had the right to strike for only two days before they were legislated back to work by Queen’s Park. The strike was expensive and disruptive to many. It can cost the local economy an estimated $50 million a day.
However, in the case of Ontario, the legislation says they are not about saving money and by declaring TTC an essential service, it is expected to cost the city more, but for all the right reasons.
Mike Foderick from Ward 17 is Coun. Cesar Palacio’s executive assistant. He mentions that a TTC strike is unnecessary and causes chaos in and around the city.
“I don’t want to generalize but the polls show that those who take the transit are workers and so people can’t go to work, can’t make it to their shifts, and they’ll have to take their vacation days. This causes Toronto a ton of chaos,” he said.
Paul argues that TTC union workers aren’t as important as police drivers or ambulance drivers but according to legislation, that is all about to change.
The legislation has mentioned that they would agree to put the TTC workers within the same category as EMS, firefighters, and police for the sake of labour contracts including a review after five years of the essential service designation.
According to Foderick, he explains that he can only speak on behalf of a Torontonian’s perspective and believes, “making the TTC an essential service is the most pro-worker thing you can do because when transit shuts down, it literally grinds the city to a halt.”
If the motion to make the TTC an essential service fails and the public falls into another strike, Gupta said there would be thousands of students like him who depend on the TTC, left with no alternatives.
Gupta explained that without the TTC, he couldn’t even imagine himself attending school. He sees the TTC as his “lifeline.”
In the beginning of February, the Toronto Transit Commission mentioned they were going forward with the move to cut services to 10 bus routes in Scarborough (41 cuts altogether). Direct money is to go towards overcrowded routes instead.
The transit commission says they are looking to use $4 million to increase services on busier bus lines. As a result, affected bus routes will have no more weekend, late night or holiday services effective as of May 8.
Although cuts are being made, there are negotiations in no longer cutting routes that cater to 10 and 15 bus riders an hour.
Due to labour contracts expiring at the end of March, it has been recommended that part-time students be cut from post-secondary student metro passes. The rationale appears to be strictly financial.
Part-time students may have the remaining year to benefit from the new fare structure before it is retracted.
Reports on whether the TTC will be considered an essential service and updates on changes to cuts in bus routes are expected in May.