Toronto votes to make TTC workers essential

Toronto city council has voted to make public transit an essential service and it is now up to the province to approve the motion.

Final decision up to province

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford scored his third major victory of the day on Thursday when Toronto's new city council made a major decision to ask the province to declare the Toronto public transit system an essential service.

The move — if the legislature approves — would make it illegal for unionized Toronto Transit Commission workers to strike. It could also provoke a showdown between Ford's new administration and one of the city's major labour unions.

TTC chief general manager Gary Webster appeared before council to argue against the move, but council turned aside his advice and voted to ask the province to take away the TTC workers' right to strike.

During the recent mayoral campaign, Ford said he would move to make the TTC an essential service, but didn't hint he would move this quickly.

The vote came during the first full session of the new city council, which also approved Ford's plan to scrap the $60 vehicle registration tax and cut the office budgets of city councillors.

At the root of the decision is the memory of the 2008 strike that caught the city unprepared and shut down the largest public transportation system in the country for two days.  It ended after the legislature was recalled and passed back-to-work legislation. 

A few months after the work stoppage, the then city council debated whether to ask the province to declare the TTC an essential service. 

If voters want an example of how different the new Ford administration will be, they need only look at the result of the 2010 vote. 

In 2008, city council defeated a similar motion by a vote of 23-22.

On Thursday night, the motion carried easily by a vote of 28-17.

Some analysts estimate workers and businesses in the city lose an estimated $50 million per day when transit isn't running. 

On Wednesday, the union that represents nearly 9,000 TTC drivers, ticket takers, operators and maintenance workers said it opposes the move to take away their right to strike.

"We believe we have a charter right to collective bargaining and we hope to maintain that," said Bob Kinnear, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113.

The union hasn't said exactly what it will do to oppose the essential-service designation but a court challenge is likely.

Some critics say that historically, mediators have awarded higher wage increases than those reached through collective bargaining.

There are also those who argue that declaring the TTC an essential service would not prevent disruptions, pointing to a work-to-rule campaign almost 20 years ago that lasted 41 days.

Currently, police, fire and some medical workers in Toronto are designated as essential workers and are not allowed to strike. 

Coun. Janet Davis pointed out that if TTC workers are added to that mix, it will mean almost 60 per cent of the city's employees will not be allowed to strike.