TTC Essential Service

March 1st, 2011 by Potato

The legislation to make the TTC an essential service is in the pipeline, and may well be in force by the end of the month, when the contract again comes up for negotiation. It is a delicate issue, but one I’ve supported for a while.

I don’t want to be too indelicate on the matter, and there are several intertwining issues.

The first is the unique situation of the TTC itself: many people in Toronto rely on the TTC to get around. Not just for commuting, but getting to doctors’ appointments, picking up groceries, and just living their lives. Because transit in Toronto is decent, people don’t have cars: most new condo buildings don’t even have parking spaces for 1 car/unit; some famously have none. Likewise, we don’t have the taxi fleet, road infrastructure, or parking spaces to fully deal with the spill-over from a transit strike: the city shuts down. With some notice, the worst of it can be dealt with, at least temporarily: people can shift their hours to spread out rush-hour, businesses can arrange to work with skeleton staff and get people to telecommute, individuals can arrange car-pools, and people can restock the fridge. Of course, last time around, the union promised to provide notice, and then walked off at midnight, stranding people in a disgusting display of selfishness and greed. That kind of thing can’t be allowed to happen again: if the union can’t be trusted at its word to provide notice — or even to use something less than the nuclear option, like reducing service to holiday hours — then essential service legislation may be the only way left to keep Toronto moving, and to give people the confidence they need in the TTC to leave their cars at home.

With the chaos in Wisconsin, a parallel was almost immediately drawn:

The leaders were also quick to equate Ontario with Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of workers have protested a proposed crackdown on public-sector unions.

In Ontario’s case, however, the legislation is not about saving money – declaring the TTC an essential service is widely expected to cost the city more in the long run. Ontario Labour Minister Charles Sousa stressed that the legislation is expressly designed for the unique and critical role Canada’s largest transit system plays in the lives of Torontonians.”

And that is a different issue. Even though I suppose you could label me as anti-union (I’ll try to clarify that below), from all accounts it looks like the republicans of Wisconsin have lost their minds. They’re not just trying to readjust the balance of power, or to get some much-needed concessions from an obstinate, entitled union (indeed, it appears as though the unions are willing to work with the state to try to balance the budget), but rather to annihilate collective bargaining all-together. And that’s going too far.

I’ve written about the power of unions before, and how in particular with government (garbage collection, TTC, etc.), the balance of power is out of whack: the unions hold too much. But removing the right to organize entirely isn’t the answer. Essential service regulation for some may be the key, especially where sudden strikes can lead to hardships. Other striking restrictions may be called for, such as some minimum standard of service during a job action (e.g., at least once-a-month garbage collection).

Part of where I stop seeing eye-to-eye with government unions is in their monopoly nature: just as corporate monopolies can lead to abuses, the same can happen on the labour side. I don’t want to take away anyone’s right to get together and collectively bargain, but why, once a union is formed, is that then the only option? If a union wants to walk off the job rather than negotiate, why can’t the government then try to negotiate with someone else to do the job? Why does it take a special exemption for someone who disagrees with the union to get a job, and even then, she still has to have union dues deducted from her pay (though in this case, they won’t go to the union)?

The balance-of-power just isn’t quite right at the moment. I don’t think radical reform a la Wisconsin is in order, but something along the lines essential service regulation does a lot to re-level the playing field. It’s just not fair that tax-payer funded workers are better off than many of the tax-payers themselves. Pay increases can’t increase faster than the rate of inflation indefinitely; and stuff like this burns too:

The Ontario Liberals, trying to trim a nearly $19 billion budget deficit, raised the hackles of local unions when they announced in the 2010 budget that they would seek a two-year wage freeze on about one million public sector employees. However, apparently to avoid a labour showdown, the government failed to introduce legislation to back up the plan. Non-unionized salaries were frozen immediately. That means many unionized public sector workers have been getting pay hikes while their nonunionized counterparts doing the same work, often in the same location, have not. The Ontario Hospitals Association has been particularly vehement about these inequities.”

Mere hours after a strike deadline, the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association negotiated a settlement worth 1.5 per cent for each of four years.

That one in particular stings because grad students haven’t had an increase to their stipends in over a decade… but that’s a rant for another time. There’s a clear union/non-union imbalance there, and I don’t think the answer is “well, join a union” since there also looks to be a power imbalance between the government and the unions (an inability to extract even a minor concession like a wage freeze in the midst of a recession).

Anyway, I’m glad to see the TTC’s essential role recognized in the law, and hope that a more proper balance of power with other government unions is found. It could come from other legal changes, but it could also come just from the union leaders wising up to the fact that a strike, especially a public-sector one, is a severe undertaking, and not a biannual street party. Note though that I’m mostly only talking about government unions: the private sector does have a bit more of a balance (private companies can legitimately threaten to close down plants/offshore, simply fold up shop, or reason that a strike also hurts the union if it leads to the competition eating their lunch).

3 Responses to “TTC Essential Service”

  1. Patrick Says:

    Not that you asked, but here’s my view.

    Unions are to protect replaceable workers from being replaced. Otherwise, in a lot of jobs, every time you complain to your employer, you risk being replaced by someone more desperate for work. Without unions, the free market would result in workers being treated in the worst possible way “the market will bear”: the lowest possible wages and worst treatment that doesn’t leave employers understaffed. As a society, we’ve decided that this is an undesirable situation, and have therefore given unions powers that allow them to prevent it.

    If you buy all that, then it follows that a key part of this is that employers can’t use other workers during a strike, or else the union is pointless.

    However, continuing this line of thought, I think there are two key issues that current union legislation is missing:

    1. Unions are not for professionals who can personally differentiate themselves from their peers by their individual talents, and can make themselves irreplaceable by other means than a union. For example, I’m completely against players’ unions for sports with millionaire players.

    2. A strike is meant to withhold the worker’s services to their employer, not to inflict arbitrary harm on third parties. I think unions should be required to make a good-faith effort to minimize harm to third parties. The TTC shouldn’t be targeting commuters; police shouldn’t let crimes happen; hospital staff shouldn’t let people suffer. Delaying paperwork, working to rule, selective picket lines (targeting the employer, not third parties) and other such measures would be more ethical.

  2. Potato Says:

    Patrick, not sure why your comments keep getting delayed by the spam filter, I’ll try to whitelist you later…

    Anyhow, I think we’re mostly in agreement: I think that when it comes to government services, since the government isn’t a purely for-profit enterprise, the same factors don’t apply: the government won’t necessarily try to squeeze every last dime out of the labour force no matter the moral cost, and also, the government isn’t hurt by a strike action — it’s always third parties. I was talking about balance-of-power above, but I think you put it even better with that notion of third parties: to my mind, a strike should be directed against the employer and not third parties, which is problematic with government unions. To make an extreme comparison, the TTC stranding riders or the outside workers letting garbage pile up and harassing private waste disposers should be no more permissible than another union taking a group of kids hostage at gunpoint until they get their way.

  3. wayfare Says:

    “Unions are to protect replaceable workers from being replaced.”

    I disagree – I really don’t think that most unions these days are serving this function. There are very few jobs out there (union or otherwise) where someone can be that easily tossed out and replaced. First, there’s the difficulty of firing someone since most corporations big enough to have union workers have a very specific set of tasks and documentation that has to be completed before someone can be fired. Then there’s the pain and cost of going through the hiring process (posting for a job, combing through applicants and interviewing, reference checking, contract negotiation, etc.), followed by the time and cost of orientation and training, never mind the costs associated with the learning curve while the new person gets up to speed.

    And now that I’ve written this I’ve found others who have made the point much better than I, such as