Manitoba

Transit union wants fall strike for major impact to service, Winnipeg mayor says

A frustrated Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman lashed out at the city's transit union on Friday, accusing it of delaying contract talks in order to disrupt service in the fall, when it would have the biggest impact.

New bargaining dates set for next week, as city and transit union heat up war of words

Winnipeg Transit provides 170,000 rides a day, the union president says. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

A frustrated Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman lashed out at the city's transit union on Friday, accusing it of delaying contract talks so it can disrupt service in the fall, when job action would have the biggest impact.

"We believe that they are preparing for a strike in September so that they could disrupt service to the greatest extent possible, when school is back and workers are back from cottage country," Bowman said.

The city has asked, through a conciliator, to meet at the negotiating table next week, Bowman said.

When he spoke to media Friday morning, the mayor said the city's offer had not been accepted by the Amalgamated Transit Union, and he was disappointed the ATU is increasing rhetoric and negotiating publicly, through the media.

"We have tried to get a date through the conciliator but they are delaying. We are hoping they come back to the table so we can negotiate a deal that's fair to our valued employees as well as taxpayers."

A few hours after Bowman's remarks, the ATU said it would be heading back to the table, telling CBC News that bargaining dates had been set for next Thursday and Friday.

The union, which represents 1,400 mechanics, drivers and other Winnipeg Transit workers, has been without a contract since January.

Mayor Brian Bowman said on Friday morning the city had offered to meet with the transit union but had not received a response. Later in the day, the ATU said it would be returning the bargaining table next week. (CBC)

Tensions over contract talks have grown in recent weeks, with ATU members engaging in job action, including refusing to work voluntary overtime and not enforcing fare collection from passengers on two separate days.

A number of transit operators also called in sick on the night of a Winnipeg Blue Bombers game, creating delays for people getting to and from the football stadium.

Aleem Chaudhary, president of ATU Local 1505, said the union is not eyeing a strike date in the fall.

"That would be the last, last thing that we would consider," he said.

I'm not saying that [a strike will] never happen, but I'm going to tell you that it'd be the very, very last thing that we would ever do.- Aleem Chaudhary, ATU Local 1505 president

"We do not want to inconvenience our riders. That is why we chose not to enforce fares. We could have walked off the job for part of the day.… We could have done work-to-rule and slowed the system down, but decided the best way to have the least impact on our riders was to do that."

Having said that, a strike cannot be ruled out, Chaudhary said.

"I'm not saying that it'll never happen, but I'm going to tell you that it'd be the very, very last thing that we would ever do."

The union would like to meet again but the two sides are so far apart, conciliation would be more costly than helpful, Chaudhary said.

The ATU negotiating team includes six people who have to be pulled from their jobs for conciliation meetings, which means overtime must be paid to others to fill in, he said.

"The last two days of conciliation basically cost us almost $5,000 and we didn't even discuss anything, in all honesty. It's a waste of time."

Shifting demands

Bowman accused the union of being inconsistent in its demands.

"We have put forward, and have adjusted significantly, the offers that have been made. The demands from the leadership of the union have been shifting," he said.

"For two years, we heard that it was safety."

Over the past 24 months the city has invested $20 million in safety for transit, Bowman said.

"So what's become clear at the table is their primary motivation is simply money and wages."

Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, says two sides are still very far apart. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Chaudhary shook his head when he heard that.

He said he doesn't know where Bowman got the $20-million figure — the safety shields being installed in the bus fleet were estimated at $3.15 million — and the primary concern of the union in the contract talks is safety and working conditions of its members.

"[Drivers] are being yelled at and assaulted," he said. "When the buses are late, the first person you see when the bus arrives is the operator, and who do [angry passengers] take it out on? They yell and scream at the operator."

The reason the buses are so late is because the schedule that drivers are required to follow is too tight to maintain, Chaudhary said. 

Drivers quitting

Drivers don't want to be subjected to that stress for the money they're being paid, and junior operators often face 12-14 hour shifts on weekends, he said.

As a result, the turnover rate of drivers is 10 per cent, and last month, in a single week, seven people resigned, he said.

"Winnipeg Transit is very important to a lot of people. We provide 170,000 rides a day, and you know, we want to be able to do that and want to do it timely, in a manner that works for everybody."

Chaudhary also said Bowman and "his team" first broke the rule about not negotiating in public by releasing to the media the offer that the city had made to the ATU.

"I think this is all politics, unfortunately."

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Bartley Kives

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