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Drivers powerless against abuse, fare fraud

‘How would you feel if someone spit on you? It’s demoralizing’

Commission supportive of its drivers, says Moscoe

Feb. 18, 2006. 01:00 AM

There’s a reason TTC bus and streetcar drivers don’t smile: They call it a “poker face” and it’s their only defence against a rising tide of verbal and physical abuse they face on the job every day.

“I always let the other guy make the first move,” says John McElwain, who drives mostly in East York. “If I have my poker face on, and someone says: “Good morning,’ I drop it and say: ‘How are you?’

“But I’m also waiting for that person to step on the bus and say: ‘Where the f- - - have you been? I’ve been standing here for 35 f- - - - - - minutes.’

“I don’t know which it’s going to be.”

Increasingly crowded buses mean more late buses, which leads to ever more impatient commuters. And now bus drivers fear rising transit prices will mean more people will try to evade fares, which may lead to more confrontations, lousier service and a demoralized crew of operators.

“How would you feel if someone came to your job today and spit on you, right in your face, and called you a piece of crap?” says Shawn Gilchrist, on long-term leave after being punched in the face over a fare dispute in May. “That’s what we face on a daily basis. It’s demoralizing.

“The buses are jam packed. People are waiting on buses a half hour and can’t get on the bus. Now you’ve got decent people who are going to turn against you. You’re raising the fares and the people that are ripping you off are going to continue and a few more are going to start.”

Drivers are virtually powerless to stop people who put in a dime instead of a token, or refuse to pay anything at all.

“I’ve got 40 people on a bus and one guy is causing a problem,” says McElwain.

“I know the longest he can be on my bus is seven minutes because that’s when I arrive at the subway. Or I can stop the bus, confront the guy and we can all wait 40 minutes for the police. What do you think I’m going to do?

“The level of public decorum we tolerate on the TTC has gotten down close to the gutter level. We tolerate people yelling and swearing. We tolerate people doing all sorts of things, because the people just want to get to work.”

Bob Kinnear, president of the union that represents bus drivers, says TTC chair Howard Moscoe and chief general manager Rick Ducharme must do more to support operators on the front lines who face verbal abuse every day, and physical abuse, like punching and spitting at alarmingly increasing levels, creating an unsafe work environment.

“If Mr. Ducharme or Mr. Moscoe were facing the possibility of being shot, or spat upon, or kicked or punched in their workplace, I’m sure they would find the means to ensure they would be safe. That’s what we need to do for over 4,000 operators out there,” said Kinnear.

“When there are assaults that arise out there, the TTC has to be more supportive of their employees instead of questioning what happened. It would seem the priority is to believe the public and not to support the operators.”

“My sense is we do back our drivers,” says Moscoe. “When you’re dealing with the public, you have to deal with all kinds of people, and the public has to deal with all kinds of drivers. It’s the human condition.

Ducharme accuses Kinnear of playing labour politics, pointing to management initiatives, including cameras on buses, safety committees, and making Metropasses transferable to reduce confrontations.

“To say we don’t care, I take issue with that,” says Ducharme.

Kinnear also wants to see tough laws to protect bus drivers who are assaulted in the line of duty, giving them the same protection as police.

While Kinnear had kind words to say about the TTC’s handling of the case of Jaime Pereira, the driver operator shot in the face in October, he said that was the exception, not the rule.

Gilchrist, for example, who lost the tooth, had called a passenger on the fact his transfer was 117 days old.

The man was caught and arrested. Witnesses gave their name to Gilchrist, who passed their names and phone numbers on to TTC management. When the trial came, none of the witnesses had been called to support Gilchrist’s story. The judge threw out the charges.

“You feel like you have no support,” says Gilchrist.

“I was a mess. It happened in May, I haven’t worked since,” says Gilchrist. “I can’t go back to driving a bus, which I actually enjoyed. I’m afraid.”

He lost $50,000 worth of wages, he’s in psychiatric therapy and in a dispute about who should pay for his dental work.

“When I got this job, I thought I won a mini lottery. I never knew what drivers go through � I learned real quick. You have a game face on. The schedules are so tight, there’s so many people, you don’t have time to do the job the way you’d like to.”

McElwain, too, has been spit upon.

“I’m 6 feet tall, 230 pounds. I served in the military, I can look after myself. But you can come up to me, spit fully and squarely in my face, and all I can do � I’m bound by procedure � I have to open the door and let you off.

“If I leave the vehicle to chase the guy, I’ve abandoned my vehicle. That’s one discipline. I’ve probably assaulted him by catching him, that’s another.

“By the time the lawyers finish, who knows.”