By: Sherwin Sze-Wai Lau
Edited by: Jean-François Obregón
A strike was called on November 6, 2022 by ATU 1587. It was intended to have Metrolinx reach an agreement to end the outsourcing of GO Transit operators and staff work to third-party subcontractors. With the possibility of a recession on the horizon, this measure has been a concern for the labour union. As COVID-19 public health restrictions were put in place, there was a drop in GO Transit ridership. Cost-cutting at the expense of unionized GO Transit workers became a source of concern.
The Amalgamated Transit Union represents GO bus drivers, attendants, and other GO Transit employees. The ATU is one of the largest labour unions that represents transit workers across North America. One of the ATU’s important tasks is that they frequently educate transit staff on their rights as employees.
The ATU’s Canadian Chapter was created in 1982, representing GO Transit employees across the Greater Toronto Area and the Golden Horseshoe. ATU 1587 represents more than 2,300 active and retired transit staff. For the first time ever, a union was able to provide representation for transit workers for speaking with superiors, education on the right to refuse unsafe work, and the right to absences in Canada.
Image: ATU 1587- KNOW YOUR RIGHTS! : https://atu1587.ca/#/knowyourrights/
In April 2020, the onset of COVID-19 led to GO Transit ridership dropping by approximately 90%. Prior to the pandemic, daily ridership on GO was well above 330,000. In terms of revenue for Metrolinx, it amounted to a roughly $10 million dollar weekly revenue decrease.
With three GO transit workers testing positive in 2020, COVID-19 protocols were tightened for all riders and workers. Metrolinx brought in a vaccine mandate that led to many staff deciding whether to get vaccinated or face possible unpaid leave by November 1, 2021.
Metrolinx gave its contracted-out Alstom employees an extension to be vaccinated by December 5, 2021, and “expected all employees to be fully vaccinated to work on their premises.” Facing a labour shortage in August 2022, Alstom issued a letter stating that Metrolinx dropped the vaccine mandate, allowing Alstom employees on leave to return. Metrolinx stated that the mandate remained in place. Allowing lower-wage, contracted-out employees to return to work while the unionized staff was still on leave because of a vaccine mandate could have been a source of tension among ATU 1587 members in their negotiations with the province. For context, at least a dozen Metrolinx employees filed wrongful dismissal claims in December 2021 against the agency after being put on unpaid leaves of absence over not complying with its vaccine mandate.
“As previously notified, from December 5, 2021, Metrolinx expected all employees to be fully vaccinated to work on their premises. We want to notify you that this is no longer a requirement for current employees,” reads a letter signed by Christelle Migayron, Alstom’s human resources business partner and obtained by the Star. “We are recalling, from unpaid leave status, those employees who either self-identified as unvaccinated or chose not to disclose vaccination status back to work by August 15, 2022.”
“Failure to respond to this notice by August 12, 2022 will be considered a resignation,” the letter goes on to say. – “Unvaccinated GO Transit, UPX contract employees called back to work amid staff shortages,” Toronto Star, August 5 2021.
The province amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act’s Schedule 5 to “require the owner of a workplace to provide access to a washroom to persons making deliveries to or from the workplace. Exceptions are provided for.” On November 25, 2021, Peggy Sattler, then-Ontario NDP Labour Critic, brought up a letter from the ATU president during the debate over Bill 27 Working for Workers Act 2021. The labour leader felt the bill excluded transit workers, “it was very uncomfortable and difficult for many of us to hear, but it is a reality. It is a reality that any transit worker who is menstruating, transit workers who are pregnant and older transit workers who may have medical conditions cannot access the washroom. They do not have the predictability of scheduling, the predictability of their routes that enables them to take washroom breaks when they need them, and yet they are excluded from this bill.” This concern over the potential for tight bathroom schedules stemming from Bill 27 may have added to ATU transit workers’ frustrations.
Fast forward to September 2022, a report from Metrolinx’s board of directors showed a 102% ridership increase on weekends, holidays, and sporting events since 2019. GO has been forced to divert buses that would have been bound for Union Station to outlying GO train stations to avoid delays, overcrowding, and potential traffic jams. However, GO Transit has only recovered 49% of its overall ridership as of September 2022. What would already stretched staff have to contend with if ridership kept recovering?
GO Transit workers and ATU 1587 were dealing with Metrolinx outsourcing to third-party and cutting unionized staff hours. Since COVID-19, many transit workers’ positions have been temporarily replaced by subcontracting companies. ATU 1587 workers picketed at Union Station starting November 6, 2022 mainly because of concerns about workers’ rights, but also because Metrolinx had been lagging on the conversation of hiring more permanent unionized staff. With no new terms of agreement set, many union members were working without a contract since June 1, 2022. ATU 1587 accused Metrolinx of the practice of workers being paid half the wage for mid-day transit layovers and rest pit stop. These pit stops are intended for drivers to inspect vehicle safety and utilize spare time to clean their workspace before beginning the next route.
With COVID-19 measures being dropped, there may have been fears of outsourced staff indefinitely replacing permanent staff. Thus, leaving unionized staff with fewer workable hours. This would have been a major source of frustrations for the ATU 1587.
Bargaining had been going on since April 2022 with November 10, 2022 being the 21st meeting between Metrolinx and the ATU 1587. Both sides, including ATU 1587 president Rob Cormier and Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulrony have accused each other of walking out from negotiations and delaying negotiations. Metrolinx finally met with ATU on October 31st with an offer but it was struck down by 81% ATU members voting no because it failed to address the contracting out of operators.
On November 10, 2022, a tentative agreement was reached to address the three main concerns of the ATU 1587: contracting out, retirement, and wage increase. Additionally, critical language used in negotiation would protect GO Transit jobs from being contracted out. These could be seen as improvements to job security for union members.
Across the overall 6,357 transportation employees across Canada, the average age in 2021 was 45.5+. With such an aging population of employees moving Canadians, attrition and retirement plans was the second big topic. As President of ATU 1587, Rob Cormier said:
“It’s not just bus operators … we have office workers … plant maintenance people … fleet maintenance people … we see a lot of the jobs that our people normally do being done by contractors (…) So if one of our people leaves through retirement or … they decide to leave the company, we just want to make sure that job got posted and our people had the opportunity to do it.”
This can further prevent more trained employment positions from being contracted out to third party firms.
The last but most important item of concern for the ATU 1587 was wages. Worker demands to be paid more were met with an agreed 1% wage increase every 12 months. This is a result of Bill 124, Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019 that caps all Ontario public sector employee wage increases to 1% annually.
GO Transit members of the ATU 1587’s strike lasted four days and negotiations occurred over seven months. With the dispute over, unionized transit operators were back on the job on November 12th. This event has marked an important precedent for transit unions that push back against how their employment is valued by the public sector.
Unions help workers and the public build faith in the rightful services that they provide. They help workers to maintain fair wages and stable hours. Workers are supposed to have a say in rejecting unsafe work or reporting working conditions without fear of being fired or replaced. With a possible economic downturn on the horizon, the proliferation of the gig economy, and the contracting out of jobs pose new challenges for sustaining livable wages.
This strike showed the risks of ongoing outsourcing of public service delivery and the potential of removing protection from labour unions. When workers are treated with dignity and when basic human rights (e.g. bathroom breaks) are met, quality is seen through years of dedication and practice. These minute and behind-the-scenes negotiations are important and affect everyone utilizing public transportation and services.
- “Talks with striking GO Transit workers moved up after union slams Metrolinx for delaying negotiation”, https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/talks-with-striking-go-transit-workers-moved-up-after-union-slams-metrolinx-for-delaying-negotiations-1.6145809
- ATU 1587: https://atu1587.ca/#/knowyourrights/
- “Strike averted as union for some GO Transit employees looks at new deal: memo”, https://globalnews.ca/news/9230062/metrolinx-go-transit-employees-union-strike-averted-memo/
- “Striking GO Transit workers, Metrolinx to resume talks Thursday, union says”, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/go-transit-strike-metrolinx-negotiations-1.6645818
- “GO bus drivers to strike Monday if no deal reached with Metrolinx over weekend, union says”, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/go-bus-drivers-strike-monday-1.6641181
- “No GO bus service Monday as 2,200 transit workers launch first day of strike”, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/go-bus-drivers-strike-1.6642718
- “More people take GO Transit on weekends now than before the pandemic. That may not be good news”, https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2022/09/20/more-people-take-go-transit-on-weekends-now-than-before-the-pandemic-that-may-not-be-good-news.html
- “Unvaccinated GO Transit, UPX contract employees called back to work amid staff shortages”, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/08/05/unvaccinated-go-transit-upx-contract-employees-called-back-to-work-amid-staff-shortages.html
- “Union for GO Drivers say big ticket item lies with maintaining hours for workers”, https://globalnews.ca/news/9260763/go-transit-strike-union-big-ticket-item-hours/
- “GO Transit ridership down 90% as people stay home during COVID-19 pandemic”, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/go-transit-ridership-covid-19-pandemic-1.5530950
- WORKING FOR WORKERS ACT, 2021 / LOI DE 2021 VISANT À OEUVRER POUR LES TRAVAILLEURS: http://hansardindex.ontla.on.ca/hansardETITLE/42-2/L024A-71.html
- “Canada: Workers resist Ontario’s union-busting tactics with wildcat actions”: https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/canada-workers-resist-ontarios-union-busting-tactics-wildcat-actions
- Bill 27, Working for Workers Act, 2021: https://www.ola.org/en/legislative-business/bills/parliament-42/session-2/bill-27
- Employment Standards Act Policy and Interpretation Manual: Section 51 – Rights during leave: Rights during leave – section 51(1): https://www.ontario.ca/document/employment-standard-act-policy-and-interpretation-manual/part-xiv-leaves-absence
- Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1: Duties of owners — washroom access (2021, c. 35, Sched. 5, s. 1): https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90o01
- Bill 124, Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019: https://www.ola.org/en/legislative-business/bills/parliament-42/session-1/bill-124#BK9
- Employee Demographics and Priorities: Transport Canada’s (TC) overall employee population: https://tc.canada.ca/en/corporate-services/transparency/briefing-documents-transport-canada/2021/corporate-structure/employee-demographics-priorities
- “Metrolinx employees launch $2 million in claims over vaccine mandate, unpaid leave”, https://stlawyers.ca/blog-news/metrolinx-employees-file-2-million-lawsuit-over-vaccine-mandate-unpaid-leave/
- “No GO bus service on Monday if transit workers go on strike: Metrolinx”, https://www.cp24.com/news/no-go-bus-service-on-monday-if-transit-workers-go-on-strike-metrolinx-1.6139805
- PHOTO: “No GO bus service on Monday if transit workers go on strike: Metrolinx”, (Chris Mulligan/ CBC), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/go-bus-drivers-strike-1.6642718
- “GO Transit workers reach tentative agreement with Metrolinx, ending four-day strike”, https://www.cp24.com/news/go-transit-workers-reach-tentative-agreement-with-metrolinx-ending-four-day-strike-1.6148117
- “GO Transit Workers End Strike After Reaching Tentative Deal with Metrolinx”, https://storeys.com/go-transit-tentative-agreement-metrolinx/