Transit Strike: dialogue of the deaf

So is this strike all about the city’s deafness to the needs of its transit workers? Or is it all about a clique of senior union members imposing their will on the broader union, the city and 90,000-plus people a day who rely on public transit?

As in all labour-management disputes, it depends who you ask. The city, through its increasingly-isolated mayor, Peter Kelly, says it’s all about the need for greater flexibility in scheduling public transit. That in itself does not seem unreasonable. But flexibility in managing the system is not a hallmark of Metro Transit.

Instead, a seniority list determines who’s driving what bus on which route, which sounds like the worst possible way to deliver an efficient and essential service to the public. But that is apparently the key issue for the union. And that raises the question about whether a powerful group of senior transit workers is imposing its will on the whole city.

The current system accords healthy dollops of overtime to workers and if seniority determines the schedules then it likely also determines who gets the OT and on what terms. Even Tim Bousquet, in his very pro-union piece in the Coast, found space to report that the bus drivers earn from $7,000 to as much as $25,000 per year in overtime. So the seniority system is rewarding some transit workers quite well, it would seem.

The union’s articulate president, Ken Wilson, has argued that the seniority system has always worked fine, so why change it now? Which is a good question. But it’s the same kind of question posed by people who favoured riding their horse and buggy across town over the newfangled contraptions being built by Henry Ford. Why have transit when you can have horse carts? And why not schedule public transit in our putative modern, complex city with round-the-clock transportation needs, according to methods dreamed up a century ago?

The transit workers do not have a terrible lot in life. They get reasonable pay: circa $50,000 plus overtime, all the usual health care and government employment perquisites and a defined benefit pension, all for driving the bus in a city with moderate traffic, few dangers and mostly polite customers. They work in an industry which covers almost all hours of the day and almost every part of the city. Scheduling will always be a challenge in public transit, no matter what city you’re in.

Beyond that, transit is a public trust, which every citizen helps maintain. So how is it that a relatively narrow issue has become central to a strike disrupting life and employment for tens of thousands?

Yes, HRM Council is ineffective and Kelly’s leadership is hopeless. But the strike isn’t about a feckless council and its gormless mayor. It’s about who’s running the bus system. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.


About Dan Leger

Journalist, broadcaster, consultant. And sailor. I've been a pro journalist for more than 30 years as a reporter, writer, producer and senior editor. Parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press. Executive Producer, CBC Television News, Former Director of News Content at The Chronicle Herald. Gemini Award - Best Live Special Event Coverage (1999) and Atlantic Journalism Awards winner, Commentary (2007 and 2009).
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