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TTC wants public transit declared essential service

By Natalie Alcoba
and Kenyon Wallace

Mayor Rob Ford’s bid to declare Toronto’s public transit system an essential service, which would ensure it keeps running during a labour dispute, was buoyed Wednesday by the endorsement of the Toronto Transit Commission.

It’s up to city council now to decide whether to formally ask the provincial government to make the designation. Council meets Thursday to debate a chunk of Mayor Ford’s election platform, including canceling the wildly unpopular vehicle registration tax, introduced by the David Miller administration, and slashing the office budgets of elected officials.

Councillor Cesar Palacio, a member of the commission, argued in favour of declaring the TTC essential, saying Toronto cannot afford, or function, even one day without transit. He cited an economic impact report that pegged the cost of transit strikes at $50-million a day. The TTC voted 6 to 1 in favour of the designation.

“Premier Dalton McGuinty has made it clear that if the new Toronto city council asks, his government will act quickly and work with the city to deem the TTC an essential service,” said Councillor Palacio, who represents Ward 17 (Davenport). The Premier said Wednesday he is “still very open to the idea” as long as the request is “sensible.”

But Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 President Bob Kinnear is warning that if the TTC is declared an essential service, he expects TTC operators to be paid the same as other essential service workers, including police and firefighters.

“Personally, I don’t believe we are within that range, but if Mr. Ford wants to make the argument that our members are the same, then I’ll be making the argument that we should be compensated the same,” Mr. Kinnear said in an interview with the National Post.

He said arbitrators tend to award increases over and above the norm when determining the salaries of essential services workers, meaning making the TTC an essential service could end up costing the city more.

It was a point echoed by Councillor Maria Augimeri, the lone dissenting voice on the issue on the commission. She cited a report from the think tank C.D. Howe that found such a designation would cause labour contracts to jump by $23-million, over three years.

Furthermore, she said, there is no guarantee that service won’t ever be disrupted, since workers can always strike illegally.

“The only reason I can see for going forward with this motion [is to] to satisfy a ridership that has been promised better service at lower costs. This is not the way to do it. Funding the TTC appropriately is the way to do it,” she said.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a member of the Mayor’s executive and a transit commissioner, said the cost of “massive disruptions” to businesses and residents during a transit strike “far outweigh” any additional costs in salary settlements. He also said he would favour a hybrid model that, for example, deemed just the subway essential, therefore ensuring people can still get around while preserving the right to strike.

Mr. Kinnear said the debate over whether to make the TTC an essential service also takes away from more important issues, such as overcrowding, lack of service on some routes and the deterioration of equipment.

“If you talk to any of our riders, they’re incurring delays on a daily basis because of the lack of service. Just ask anyone on King Street who has to wait four or five cars just to get on one.”