About the Blog:

Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Transit Lockout: A More Considered Opinion

UPDATE - 12:30 am, MONDAY - The Guelph Transit lockout has been averted with a tentative deal reached between the City and the Union. Read more here, but basically, it's business as usual tomorrow morning. BUSES WILL BE RUNNING AS SCHEDULED. More details to follow...


Hearing that the 205 Guelph Transit Employees had voted 94 per cent against the city's "final offer" Friday night, and the response by the city to lock them out prompted a perfectly visceral response from me.

I then got into something of a Twitter tiff with someone about the validity of my outburst, and you know what, he was right. Somewhat. In my deference to @bkmunn, I realized that hyperbole wasn't the answer, and after the Guelph Citizen's Andy Best paid me a great compliment about my reporting on this issue yesterday, I further realized that in this discussion, someone has to keep a cool head. So I will.
I will say now that this is not - entirely - the union's fault. As we've learned in the last day, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1189 is fine with the raises, but what they're not fine with is the working conditions. And yet, the City of Guelph, rather than trying to discuss things reasonably, pushed away from the table, issued an ultimatum, and made the "difficult decision" to lock out transit workers as of Monday at 12:01 am, effectively shutting down transit. But if the decision was so difficult, why did the city have these notices, professionally printed and prepared on a Saturday, ready to go up at transit stops.

Translation: the city wanted this fight. You may think that odd in an election year; why would city council, many of whom are seeking re-election, want a major transit disruption months before the city goes to the polls? The short and cynical answer is that they want to be seen getting tough on a union besieged for apparent mismanagement. Last fall's overtime spending scandal fell hard on Guelph Transit, and with union negotiations already contentious in this age of austerity, this thing was rather doomed from the get go.
“We are very disappointed in the result of this vote,” said Mayor Karen Farbridge in a press release yesterday. “The decision to lock out our transit employees was not made lightly. We know this will create enormous hardship for transit riders, for our transit staff and their families, and for our community.”
To put it another way, Farbridge and the city managers want to prove to "taxpayers" that they have the guts to stand up to "greedy unions." Of course, their definition of "taxpayers" is the same as Rob Ford's, meaning middle class, middle income homeowners. They don't ride the bus because its for students, immigrants, old people, poor people, and sandal-wearing tree huggers. Those votes aren't valuable, so neither is their opinion. In this tenement of Fordism, "taxpayers" don't ride, they drive. So they're lives will be relatively unaffected while at the same time they will be admiring of city hall and its stewards for refusing to acquiesce to those "greedy" unionized workers, who inevitably want more pay for less work, which inevitably results in a tax increase paid for by the "taxpayer," who again has no skin in the game.
But suppose for a minute that there are homeowners out there who do take the bus, how does that affect the city's math? One thing's for sure, the fallout from the lockout is already ugly. Yesterday's press conference at city hall descended into ugliness faster than you could say "job action," with union members and members of the public apparently shouting down Farbridge and city staff as they were trying to explain themselves. It got so bad that the announcement was moved into the council chambers and barred to all except media.
"This is not a decision that we made lightly," Farbridge said amidst the hecklers. "We know that this will create enormous hardship for transit riders in our city."
Does she though? On social media, Steve Petric, a member of the Transit Advisory Committee, discussed an often mentioned idea of possibility getting the mayor, councillors and senior management to ride transit and see first hand the issues. "Was discussed by Transit Advisory Committee to have council try transit for a period of time but it never got off the ground," he said on Facebook.* Why? Because of hear no evil/see no evil. It's easy to ignore problems when you don't know they exist, or can file them under the legal title of "hearsay," evidence inadmissible because the source is in question.
*In further comment Petric said it was a matter of logistics as opposed to a lack of will. The idea never left the discussion phase. Still, it's a good idea that never went anywhere, and that's a shame. 
Do any members of council take transit? Ward 5's Leanne Piper claims to saying on Twitter yesterday, "My only comment on Transit: I highly value public transit, I'm a transit user, so are my kids, I hope were up and running again soon. Period." So why the silent running? I presume that Councillor Piper, like others who depend on transit, are looking to Monday with great trepidation: How am I going to get to work? How long will the lockout last? Piper should be in the crowd shouting down the mayor, not ducking for cover behind her. But the city has answers to the former question. You're dependent on transit? Then take a taxi, or rent a car. See, the situation isn't so bad.
“We recognize all of this is cold comfort to those who rely on transit in our community,” said chief administrative office Ann Pappert in Saturday's press release. “We have taken the unusual step of providing two days’ notice before the lockout begins. This is the maximum amount of notice we can provide, to give transit riders time to seek alternate means of transportation while still maintaining the safety and security of customers, staff, and property.” You know, like the old guy my mother met today that said he has a plan: to ride his bike from his home in the Willow area in the west end to his job on Laird Rd. in the south. A ride, I will conservatively say, that takes 45 minutes to an hour. Keep in mind that he's nearly a senior citizen and it's hot outside, so I'm sure he'll be fine doing this five days a week.
As the city gets tough, the union seems less interested in salary and more concerned about working conditions. Along with more staff to carry the burden, transit workers also want more/better bathroom facilities in Guelph Central Station and a staff/lunchroom facility downtown. Sounds fair, but the city says that the cost would mean a nearly three per cent hike in taxes over the next three years to meet the union's demands. Surely the six per cent raise that the city was offering over four years would have been costly too, and I say this without crunching the numbers, but if the union's fine with their pay and benefits, couldn't that money for raises go to the facilities they want? Or does the union want to have its cake and eat it too in their own lunchroom?
The intentions of the union are unclear, and those demands discussed above have been pieced together from stray bits of conversation online and occasional comments by ATU 1189 President Andrew Cleary to local media. If you look on the ATU 1189's public website, there's no discussion about the contract demands from their point of view. There's no list of their wants for a new contract whether they fall under the category of must have, would be nice, or pie in the sky. The city's doing all the talking and that talk is epic hero myth-making where the big bad union is shaking down the city and only our scrappy mayor, with her trusty slingshot and one stone, has a chance to sock them in the eye and force the buses back on the road.
So is this really about bathrooms? Cleary provided to CTV Kitchener photos of filthy bathrooms at Guelph Central Station, and as much as you want to feel for him, you remember that Guelph Transit drivers are the only ones who can use those bathrooms. If you're a poor sap who missed his transfer because your bus fell behind, and you're stuck in at GCS for half and hour, and its 11 o'clock at night, and you need to use the bathroom, you are, to use the correct acronym, S.O.L. The public were promised washrooms during the design phase of GCS, but when construction went long, public bathrooms hit the cutting room floor. As much as Cleary and Co. hate a messy washroom, if they're looking for someone to blame, they need only look in a mirror.
On top of that, there's the 25 per cent absentee rate of the transit service, story after story of missed transfers, drivers stopping for coffees and smoke breaks while being behind schedule, allegations of a culture of ass-covering over customer service, and long history now of rider dissatisfaction. Having said that though, there are many excellent people behind the wheel at Transit who are tarnished by the ones who don't deliver at par. I once heard from an expert in customer service that if people use a service and have one horrible experience out of 20, despite the fact that there were 19 other satisfactory experiences, it's the one negative experience that's the more discernible. Still, it's hard not to feel for people who sometimes occasionally have to put up with situations like this one:

So where does this leave us?
For the union, you're going to be the villains. Sorry. Thems the breaks. The city's painting you that way, and let's be honest, people hear that you turned down a six per cent salary increase and no benefit cuts on top of your $26 per hour base pay, and they think you're crazy to turn down such a deal. Or, as the city wants us to think, greedy. Get in front of this. Tell the people why you voted no, and what it is you want in this negotiation. After Saturday's cut and run, the city's going to close ranks, so take that stage and work the information vacuum to your advantage. Win the people over! That's what unions used to do, and that's what made them successful.
For the city, you're not punishing 205 people, you're punishing 20,000. You've painted yourselves into a corner, there's talk that your last offer was really the first, and the longer this goes, the worse it's going to be for you. What's the exit strategy? That the union will see the light on issues they don't care about and forget the ones they do? Is there a Plan B? You more or less admitted that you did this now because the headache would have been greater in September when the University of Guelph is in session and many of its 20,000 students use Guelph Transit. Fine, that's perfectly cynical, but fine. Tell me, who's more likely to vote on October 27: the second, third and fourth year Gryphons just passing through September to April, or the people that live and work all year around?
I regret the suggestion that the solution is to privatize Guelph Transit, because when public services are delivered by public employees with public oversight, there's at least some kind of consistently, and more accountability. Look at private waste collection in Toronto's west end, Green For Life was disqualified from the bidding process to renew their contract with the city when the province downgraded their safety rating earlier this year. Now Toronto's public works committee needs to find someone new to collect garbage west of Yonge St., and while there will be plenty of competitors, the private garbage pick-up experiment in Toronto hasn't been as smooth as its proponents would have liked, making this another example of why public/private partnerships are more problematic than they appear.
Here's the counter-punch though, the transit system in Guelph isn't perfect, and this lock out, and it's result, will do nothing to address the concerns of the riders, or encourage those that don't use the service that it's worth trading in their private automobile for riding around with 50 of their newest, closest friends. The city and the union need to stop bloviating and screaming respectively, and work together to do what they're supposed to do: provide a quality, affordable mass transit service to the people of Guelph. But that will have to start with the city taking the locks off.


Peter Miller said...

The city needs to higher more drivers in order to ensure safety. It is unsafe to use public transit if workers are tired and overworked.

Treen 949912 said...