City amps up pressure on transit workers amid broken-down contract negotiations

On Thursday the city threatened changes will be coming to terms and conditions of employment that govern its working relationship with transit union members effective Saturday if the union does not ratify the city's final contract offer by Aug. 17.

Bus operators will be prevented from scheduling switches, given assigned days off if offer not ratified soon

Amid a more than a seven-month-long labour dispute, the city threatens to tweak employment terms and conditions governing bus operators if the union does not ratify the city's fourth and final offer by Aug. 17. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg has ramped up pressure on transit workers amid increasingly tense contract negotiations between the local transit union and its employer.

In an effort to reach a settlement — and avoid a full-out strike by bus operators — the city has threatened changes will be coming to terms and conditions of employment that govern its working relationship with union members. The changes will come into effect Saturday, the city said in a press release, if the union does not ratify the city's final offer on a collective agreement.

"This isn't a retaliatory move," said Michael Jack, the city's chief corporate services officer, during a press conference at City Hall. "This move is solely to get to a negotiated collective agreement. This is simply to provide that incentive to get this thing done." 

The city and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents about 1,400 bus drivers, mechanics and other workers, have been without a contract since Jan. 12. The union has voted to reject three offers so far, with the city's latest offer on the table since Aug. 2.

As part of the changes, Winnipeg Transit operators will no longer be able to request shift trades or vacation switches for the remainder of the year, and they will be assigned day off groups and schedules when the fall schedule comes into effect on Sept. 1, according to the release.

The union responded to the city's announcement with a press release that indicated the city had suspended seniority for operators and maintenance workers signing up for work and unilaterally changed transit workers' daily schedules.

"Obviously it's a very difficult situation we've been put in," said ATU president Aleem Chaudhary during a press conference at the union's headquarters.

"I guess the city finds that it is easier for them to intimidate the operators than it is to fix the problems that they're facing out there each and every day.

The city is trying to intimidate transit workers with its latest tactic, says Aleem Chaudhary, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505. (CBC)

"We're very, very heavily disappointed," Chaudhary said.

The local transit union has been in a legal strike position since May 31, but based on the city's interpretation, an overtime ban implemented by transit workers in June 2019 met the definition of a strike under the Labour Relations Act.

According to the city, this "strike" by the ATU officially terminated the previous collective agreement, but up until now the city has operated under the terms set out in the previous collective agreement.

The city sent out a bulletin dated Aug. 8 to members about the proposed amendments to their current employment terms.

In a letter to union members dated Aug. 8, the city's transit department lays out five key changes to employment that could go into effect Saturday. (City of Winnipeg)

"In the letter that [the city] put out it states that if you accept this, we will go back to the norm. And if you don't, then we will escalate the situation," Chaudhary said. "To me it's unfair labour practice. And unfortunately they have chosen the wrong path to go down."

Labour relations

David Camfield, a University of Manitoba professor of labour studies, said the city is clearly trying to put pressure on the union to accept its latest offer.

"The city is playing hardball," Camfield said in a phone interview. He suggested the move could actually add to existing anger among transit workers.

"I suspect it may actually blow up in their faces. It's very aggressive what [the city is] doing by suspending terms and conditions of employment."

Camfield said the city seems to be pushing for a settlement before the fall schedule sets in — when ridership numbers rise as students go back to school. "A strike would be more disruptive and affect more people," he said.

Coming to terms

The city said it recognizes the union's desire for better working conditions and the two parties remain split on a debate over general wage increases.

ATU previously pitched a 2.75 per cent annual wage increase. "This level of increase would eclipse every single annual wage increase negotiated with every single City of Winnipeg union over the last three years," the release states.

In particular, the city said the union is asking for $10 per hour increases to mechanics' salaries. The union, which has not made its side of the offer public, disputes that claim.

The city's latest offer proposes two per cent annual wage increases until March 31, 2023. At that rate, the highest paid bus operator will make over $59,000 a year and mechanics will make over $74,000 a year, plus benefits.

Its recent proposal modifies a union ask that would allow temporary re-hiring of retired bus drivers to cover single-day leaves of absence, abandons the city's previous request for flexible spare operators, and gives more union and bus operator input when developing bus schedules.

The city said it has adjusted its offer to benefit the union and has not asked union members to give up health or vision benefits, pension, or overtime premiums.

Michael Jack, the city's chief corporate services officer, says the union, in effect, brought the collective agreement to an end. The benefits of having a collective agreement include the ability to pick routes and days off on the basis of seniority, he says. (CBC)

"I hope they take the time to look at the final offer that the city put on the table. I'm hoping the ATU is open and candid with their membership about what has been offered. And I'm hoping the operators will see it as a fair and reasonable offer," Jack said on behalf of the city.

"It's very clear to us that the union was positioning itself to be able to take strike action in September when it would be most impactful to the city and to transit riders. We don't want that to happen," Jack said. "We will await the vote and see what happens."

The city said it will reinstate full terms and conditions if the union ratifies the city's final offer by Aug. 17.


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