Manitoba

City rejects counter-proposal from transit union as contract battle drags on

Transit workers are only a few stops away from a fall strike after a contract counter-proposal from their union was rejected by the City of Winnipeg on Thursday.

City would rather threaten workers and riders than fix the mess at Winnipeg Transit, union says

The transit union and the city have been at the bargaining table on and off for more than seven months and have traded shots several times since the last contract expired in January. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Transit workers are only a few stops away from a fall strike after a contract counter-proposal from their union was rejected by the City of Winnipeg on Thursday.

A news release from the city says the union's offer, sent out Friday, still has the two sides divided by a chasm of about $68 million.

The city has asked the Amalgamated Transit Union to come back with a counter-proposal "reasonably in line with what the city has offered in the previous four contract proposals, and not just another repackaging of their previous proposals."

The two sides have been at the bargaining table on and off for more than seven months and have traded shots several times since the previous contract expired in January.

"We have participated in conciliation. We have participated in mediation. There has been no shortage of the hours spent discussing and bargaining with the ATU. This isn't a matter of just a few more hours of bargaining and getting it done. We are remarkably far apart in our positions," Winnipeg's chief corporate services officer Michael Jack told reporters on Thursday.

The ATU said the city's math doesn't add up and called for more talks.

"At this point in time, instead of putting out media releases, the city could come back to the table. Let us know. Work through this. Let's be adults and stop threatening riders and and civic employees," said Zach Fleisher, director of communications for the ATU.

The union has offered free bus rides to passengers on a number of occasions, while the city has stopped allowing operators to request shift trades or switch vacation dates for the remainder of the year.

Last week, the union's negotiating team offered to take a deal with a smaller wage increase in exchange for concessions on scheduling.

That is a decrease from the 2.75 per cent per year the union had been seeking.

The city has offered a two per cent wage increase in each of the years 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. The total cost would be approximately $12.8 million.

The ATU's counterproposal asked for a 1.75 per cent increase in 2019, followed by two per cent in each of 2020, 2021 and 2022. The city says the cost would be $18.2 million.

"Contributing significantly to the variance in the dollar value is that ATU's proposal for the first 1.75 per cent increase would be effective Jan. 1, 2019, compared to the city's last offer, which scheduled the first two per cent increase as occurring in January 2020," the city news release says.

"This difference, when compounded over the life of the collective agreement, contributes significantly to the overall cost."

The city also says the union is asking for a $10 per hour wage increase for mechanics, which adds $9.6 million over the life of the contract.

Fleisher told reporters the ATU couldn't fully cost out its last offer to the city "because management has refused to give us information as to how we would calculate that.… Our concern right now is that number seems to be swinging in the wind."

5-minute standoff 

Aleem Chaudhary, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, has said one of the biggest sticking points in the negotiations is the scheduling process.

The union wants better relief points and shelters when drivers take shifts from each other, and a five-minute recovery time scheduled for each driver at the end of each bus run.

The city says the five-minute recovery time would create a decline in service.

"It would take five minutes longer for each bus to do their run, and this would have a compounding effect over the course of the day," the news release says.

In order to maintain current levels of service, the city says it would need to hire 41 additional drivers, six more maintenance/supervisors, and add approximately 32 buses to its fleet.

That would cost $10.6 million annually starting in 2020, or more than $32 million over the life of the contract, plus a one-time cost of approximately $21 million to purchase the additional buses, the city says.

Chaudhary has said the union wants to avoid a strike if possible. The city, however, is not buying it.

"We fully expect ATU to initiate strike action in the fall when it is most inconvenient to transit passengers," the news release says.

Union fires back

Chaudhary lashed out at the city in a statement released to media on Thursday afternoon, after the city news release went out.

"The city has made it clear with their latest aggression that they would rather threaten workers and riders than fix the mess at Winnipeg Transit and work in good faith, sit down with the ATU and solve these issues," he said.

"As the city has repeatedly ignored concerns with scheduling, we are left to understand that the city simply doesn't care about bus riders. If you're a transit rider, you need to know that your bus operators care about the reliability for the service that they provide, that Winnipeg Transit doesn't.

"We are dumbfounded that the city would rather vilify their own employees rather than improve a basic service that serves so many in Winnipeg."

We are dumbfounded that the city would rather vilify their own employees rather than improve a basic service that serves so many in Winnipeg- Aleem Chaudhary

Chaudhary's statement calls out Winnipeg Transit director Greg Ewankiw, blaming him for creating a poisoned workplace.

"The city continues to throw increasingly inflated and unsourced numbers around with reckless abandon instead of actually resolving the toxic work environment perpetuated by Winnipeg Transit and the director Greg Ewankiw," the statement says.

It points to a 25-cent fare hike that was followed by a $13.6-million surplus at Winnipeg Transit, and says there's been a failure to plan reliable schedules and retain employees.

"We have to … question the basic competency of Greg Ewankiw in his ability to run Winnipeg Transit," the statement says.

"At this point in time, we're unsure who is calling the shots and providing direction for the city."

The statement also calls on members of city council, specifically Sherri Rollins, Cindy Gilroy, Brian Mayes, John Orlikow and Matt Allard, to let it be known whether they agree with "this combative and regressive approach undertaken by the city."

Mayes told CBC News he is becoming exasperated with the back-and-forth language between the two sides but was particularly annoyed by the city's comment about expecting the ATU to strike in the fall.

"I have been around labour relations for 32 years and cannot remember something this juvenile in the course of bargaining. It just serves no purpose to be putting out a line like that," he said.

"The duty here is to try and get a deal, if you can, and try and keep bargaining. I'd rather have us in some hotel for the next 48 hours trying to hammer out a deal instead of this sort of public jousting 

"Let's get some grown-ups in there to to negotiate, not be writing these witty press releases. It's juvenile and inflammatory. I think we owe it to the public to make every effort to try to get a deal and not be trying to get in a war of words with press releases."

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