No fare: Transit drivers offer free rides to pressure city for new contract
Winnipeg Transit drivers not enforcing fare payments as part of collective job action
To pay or not to pay?
That was the choice Winnipeg Transit bus riders had to make Tuesday when drivers stopped enforcing fare payment as a tactic to press the city for a new contract.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents nearly 1,400 transit workers, has been without a collective bargaining agreement with the city since January. Transit workers overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer in April in a vote that saw 98 per cent of members vote against the deal.
"As far as the union and our membership is concerned, it's free ride day for everybody out there," ATU 1505 president Aleem Chaudhary said Sunday.
"We're not going on a full strike. We're not walking the picket lines. One of the main reasons we don't want to do that is we don't want to inconvenience the public," he said.
Mayor Brian Bowman says the city appealed to the Manitoba Labour Board on Monday to weigh in.
"The position that the city is taking is that the job action or strike that we're seeing today being advocated for by ATU is not legal," he said.
Bowman says rejection of the deal in April did not provide ATU with a strike mandate, and that a job-action directive would have to come from another vote.
"It didn't provide them with the ability to take the action that they are taking today."
He said he would rather see the union coming to the negotiating table instead of telling its members to decline fares.
Chaudhary said he's not worried about the labour board getting involved because the drivers are well within their rights to carry out job action.
"I can tell [Bowman] that's he's wrong — 100 per cent we are in our right and we are doing everything legally," he said.
The union cancelled negotiations that were scheduled for Monday. Chaudhary said it was partially because a national convention was happening in Winnipeg, and in part to prepare for Tuesday's actions.
Chaudhary says they will head back into negotiations on Friday.
'Thank your transit operator' and pay fare: city
The city's chief corporate services officer, Michael Jack, said Tuesday's "stunt" caused confusion amongst drivers and riders, and could lead to disputes.
"We'd like them to stop now," he said.
"My suggestion to transit riders is, today and always, thank your transit operator for doing their job and then hopefully pay your fare so that we can collect those revenues to help pay their salaries," Bowman said.
Neither Jack nor Bowman could say how much money the city stands to lose in fare revenues — that depends on how many drivers choose to follow the directive from the union and how many citizens comply.
"We expect most law-abiding citizens will want to continue to support the revenue collection that keeps the buses rolling," Jack said.
The city usually pulls in around $140,000 per day in bus fares, he said.
CBC spoke to transit riders Tuesday morning, many unaware drivers weren't enforcing fare payment.
"I'm just used to smacking the Peggo card," said Kim Boux, who paid out of habit.
Others chose to pay but said they support what the drivers are doing.
"I still paid today. I pay every day," said Dustin Swetlikoff. "They've got to make their money, they have bills to pay — the transit drivers, operators, mechanics."
Sophie Cox took advantage of the free ride.
"I'm definitely not going to pay my fares," she said.
'Unconventional, creative action'
An expert on labour studies at the University of Manitoba says the union is using the tactic to send a message to the city that would hit it in the pocket book, rather than disrupting the lives of their passengers.
"I think it's a really savvy and unconventional, creative action by the union," said David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the U of M.
"I think it both manages to put pressure on the employer — obviously it got the city of Winnipeg management pretty upset, — but it also really brings public attention to the issues that are really of concern to the union."
The union has said working conditions and city spending on transit are key issues. Driver safety has also been at the forefront in recent years, with the union citing fare disputes as a key factor in assaults on drivers.
Camfield doesn't consider the move illegal, and says a full-on transit strike would be worse.
"A full on transit strike would certainly have a big impact," he said. "There's lots of people that depend on public transit to get to work, to get to school, to get to services."
As for whether Tuesday's move could hurt future negotiations, Camfield says it might help move things along.
"I can imagine the city management is probably kind of annoyed that they were caught off guard by this, but at the end of the day it may increase the union's ability to go back to the bargaining table and get a good deal," he said.
Any time workers vote that strongly against a contract offer, Camfield said, it's not likely the group will back down easily.
"That tells me that workers are really upset, when you see a turnout that high … and when you see an overwhelming, almost 100-per-cent rejection, it really says that operators, drivers, and mechanics think that what was being offered by the employer is not acceptable."
With files from Bartley Kives, Shannah-Lee Vidal