TTC board wants transit declared essential service

In an unexpected move, the board of the Toronto Transit Commission has voted to declare public transit an essential service. The motion will go before city council on Thursday for a full debate.

Motion goes before Toronto city council Thursday

Toronto city council could be headed for a confrontation with its transit workers if it moves on Thursday to declare the TTC an essential service.

In a surprise move, the nine city councillors who make up the board that oversees the Toronto Transit Commission voted Wednesday to do just that. 

If the full council and the provincial legislature back the TTC board's decision, unionized streetcar, subway and bus workers will lose their right to strike.

During the recent mayoral campaign, Rob Ford said he would move to make the TTC an essential service but didn't indicate it would happen so quickly.

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

A few months after the work stoppage, the city council debated whether to ask the province to declare the TTC an essential service. The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins — 23-22.

City can't function without transit system

Coun. Cesar Palacio, one of the new TTC commissioners, introduced the latest motion at Wednesday's commission meeting.

"The city of Toronto is simply not designed to function without an operating public transit system," Palacio said.

Some estimates claim that the city's workers and businesses lose as much as $50 million per day when transit isn't running. 

Only Coun. Maria Augimeri argued against the motion, claiming it will mean skyrocketing wages — maybe as much as an extra $23 million. 

"I think it's shortsighted for councillors to vote for this," she said. "We just don't have the money. This is a purely financial argument. The money just isn't there."

But other councillors — members of the TTC board — said the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and the motion easily passed.

The motion now moves to full council where it is expected to also pass.

Union vows to fight for collective bargaining

But the union that represents most TTC workers says it won't easily give up its constitutional right to collective bargaining. 

"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 says making transit an essential service is completely unnecessary.

"The fact of the matter is that we have only withdrawn our services 13 days out of the last 30 years; 99.9 per cent of the time we have been on the job, provided the very vital service to the city of Toronto," Kinnear said. "We don't see any necessity to deem us an essential service."

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

In the event that a labour dispute involving essential workers can't be resolved through negotiation, a mediator is appointed. 

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

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