The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 and its 13,000 members voted in a new leadership on Dec. 1, 2021. Making up the bulk of the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) frontline workforce, these workers have endured not only the constant threat of infection from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a consistent stream of mismanagement and attacks from TTC CEO Rick Leary and his cronies in upper management. Incumbent President Carlos Santos was elected three years ago on a program of fighting back against these attacks, and of promoting democratic accountability and transparency within the union. His failure to credibly deliver on any of these promises led to the complete collapse of his support, managing to register only 9.2 per cent of the vote, and finishing in a distant third place. Marvin Alfred won the election with 56.9 per cent of the vote, and will take office in January 2022 as the new President of the union. What lessons can be learned from these events?

Turnover on executive board

Upheaval in these elections was not limited to the presidency. Of the top five executive positions, three witnessed the defeat of the incumbent. In addition to the presidency, the union will now have a new Vice-President in Angie Clark, and a new Secretary-Treasurer in Max Matharu. Clark is a respected rank-and-file activist in the union, and has for years organized for change and accountability from the leadership. Outgoing Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Morton, by contrast, held a vice-like grip over his position for many years. Morton was widely despised by the activist layer in the union for the unaccountable and disrespectful manner in which he related to the rank and file. He was even alleged by some to be the puppet master pulling the strings of the Santos presidency, leading many to now rejoice over his defeat.

Of the 17 executive positions up for election, there were at least three more rank and file activists that managed to prevail in their contests. This includes Matthew Chau, the new exec for streetcar and wheel-trans operators; Nick Mitropolous, exec for collectors and clerical; and Brian Connolly, exec for bus maintenance garages. Once added up, all of this change amounts to a turnover on the executive of more than 50 per cent, a significant changing of the guard reflecting the discontent of the membership with the status quo.  

Discontent has deeper roots

Taken as a whole, these results clearly show that this election was about far more than just the rejection of Carlos Santos. The roots of discontent in the ATU 113 in fact go back well over a decade. At the time, the union was known to be one of the most militant in the country, having gone on a wildcat strike in 2006, followed by a legal strike just two years later. The President of the union at the time was Bob Kinnear, a man whom many now reminisce about, wishing for a return to the “good old days.” But Kinnear’s actual record is far less impressive than the myth. His executive recommended a “yes” vote on a tentative contract negotiated with management during the 2008 dispute, which the membership decisively rejected by 65 per cent, undermining his authority in the process. 

Years later, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, Kinnear mused that “a small percentage of the members perceive that as, ‘You’ve turned into a company person. You’ve gotten soft.’ But I think it’s important we’re upfront with our membership. The old days are over. We’ve got to be a lot smarter in how we deliver our message.” Kinnear at this point had embraced an anti-strike position of collaborating rather than confronting management and government.

The provincial Liberal government legislated the TTC as an essential service in 2011, stripping ATU 113 members of their democratic right to strike. This was a clear political attack intended to serve as punishment for the union’s past militancy. How did Kinnear respond? He opposed the legislation, but instead offered to refrain from going on strike in future in exchange for maintaining the basic right. 

One might reasonably ask, in response, what is the point of maintaining the right if you never intend to use it? Shutting down the public transit system is of course a sensitive question, as the broader working class depends on it to go to and from work every day. The answer, however, is not to reject the possibility of striking under any circumstances, but to strike in a way that can galvanize public support. Embracing the demand for free, quality, publicly-funded transit is one way that the ATU 113 could demonstrate to the public that it is not just fighting for itself, but for transit riders as well. 

A decade of attacks and dysfunction

Some mused at the time of the essential service legislation that TTC workers might begin to be treated on par with other essential workers such as firefighters and police. History has proven otherwise. The commission’s unionized workers have been subjected to a consistent stream of attacks and management aggression ever since, including the contracting out of hundreds of maintenance jobs and their conversion into private sector poverty wage positions. Management has made numerous cuts to the sick benefits system, kept wage increases below the rate of inflation, and has even tried to bring in part-time workers and eliminate historic job security provisions.

Kinnear’s “modern” approach to union leadership in the end amounted to almost complete passivity in the face of all these attacks. Through all of this, Kinnear indeed seemed to be more concerned with his own personal prestige and standing within the Local and the larger ATU International union. When his ambitions were frustrated on this latter level, a scheme was concocted to work with Unifor, the largest Canadian private sector union, to raid the Local and take it out of the International. When the International leadership caught wind of this, they moved swiftly and imposed a trusteeship over the local. In the end, the membership was completely sidelined and not allowed to have its say in the matter one way or another. This bureaucratic turf war made it clear to many in the rank and file that the leadership was completely rotten and needed to be replaced entirely. Others concluded that the entire union needed to be transformed from top to bottom.

The rise and fall of Carlos Santos

At the first union meeting held after the trusteeship was imposed, well over one thousand angry members turned up, with many demanding the resignation of the entire executive board. In the end, Kinnear and several others did resign. Subsequent elections held saw the election of Frank Grimaldi as the new 113 President in 2017. Grimaldi’s executive oversaw the launch of the Keep Transit Public campaign, which had the potential to spark a wider movement and fightback against Premier Doug Ford’s privatization schemes. In relation to management, however, Grimaldi continued the passive and subservient approach of his predecessors.

At this point, incremental change was not going to be enough to satisfy ATU members. They wanted a return to the fighting methods of the past, but they also demanded accountability from their leaders, and workers’ democracy in the union. This was nothing other than the complete opposite of the conditions prevailing inside the local at the time. It was for these reasons that Carlos Santos, a rank-and-file activist and relative outsider, managed to oust Grimaldi as President in elections held at the end of 2018. Santos ran on a platform of militant, democratic change in the union. In his own words, he pledged that as President, “we will shut down the city’s central nervous system if necessary – and we will do this in close alliance with other unions, community groups and growing resistance to Ford’s privatization plans.”

At the time, we in Fightback wrote that if Santos is to follow through on this promise, “he must be prepared to mobilize ATU rank-and-file workers en masse,” and to connect this with the wider struggle against the Ford regime. To accomplish this, we elaborated the following:

Engaging with the rank and file inside the local is particularly important, given the likelihood that there will be some form of bureaucratic resistance that emerges to such a militant approach at some point. While the business unionist approach of the Grimaldis has been defeated at the top of the union for now, the reality is that there is still a culture of careerism and bureaucratism that pervades the middle layers of leadership. To avoid sinking into this swamp, Santos must build a base of grassroots volunteers to assist in carrying out his programme, and not be afraid to call out hostile bureaucratic maneuvers when they arise. Santos has been given a strong democratic mandate by the membership of ATU 113 to revive the traditions of struggle that the union has been built on. It is now time to carry that out.         

We must say that Santos failed to heed this advice, and accomplished very little if anything. He certainly did at times adopt confrontational rhetoric in his relations with TTC CEO Rick Leary and Toronto Mayor John Tory. But he failed to translate this rhetoric into any sort of militant action, and consciously chose not to engage with and mobilize the rank and file. He failed to carry out any real, meaningful democratic reform in the union, and rather than challenging the culture of unaccountability and careerism on the executive, reconciled himself to it. 

New leadership must prepare for the fights to come

The almost complete collapse of Santos’ support in the most recent elections came as a surprise to no one inside the union. Santos’ downfall, however, was not the result of his confrontational rhetoric towards management and government, but was the consequence of his failure to translate these words into action; to educate, organize, and mobilize the membership around clear fighting ideas and methods, and to transform the union from within. 

In an interview given to the Toronto Star after his election, President-elect Marvin Alfred seems to have drawn the wrong conclusion about the lessons of the Santos regime. In his own words, Alfred stated, “I think we need to communicate with something greater than a hostile way of relating to (management)” and should “work toward getting a mutually agreed upon position” instead of “just boring through one way.” Under Santos, he says, “I think there was not really a collaborative way of doing business.” 

The problem with this approach is that TTC management under Leary has shown very little interest in any meaningful collaboration. The entire history of the TTC proves precisely the opposite—that management is intent on sticking it to its unionized workforce, and on breaking the union in the long run. In this environment, the union can only trust in its own strength, being that of its members, and that of the wider labour movement and general public. Most importantly, the union must be prepared to fight like hell against any future attacks and privatization attempts, and to take that fight to whatever extent is necessary.

The TTC is currently in the middle of a revenue crisis. Having been underfunded for decades, the collapse of fare revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this situation to a breaking point. $1.3 billion in pandemic emergency funding provided by the federal and provincial governments has provided a respite for the time being, but this must be made permanent and expanded as the starting point of a future solution.  

The new ATU 113 leadership must demand this, and must also demand that union jobs and public ownership of transit be protected in the process. This is not enough, however. The union must also demand the provision of free, quality public transit for all in order to show the broader transit-riding public that the union is actively fighting for them as well as themselves. They must expose the criminal mismanagement of the Leary regime, and demand workers’ control and management of public transit instead. 

To accomplish this, the new executive must embark on a serious internal campaign of member education and mobilization to prepare for the fights to come. Teach-ins on the militant history of the union should be brought to the workplaces. Flying squads of rank-and-file union activists should be organized and dispatched to show picket line solidarity wherever strikes pop up in the city. And if ever a TTC worker is asked to cross a picket line while on duty, the union must give them the confidence to refuse and state that “picket lines mean do not cross”! In these ways the fighting traditions of the union can be rebuilt, as can its organic connections to the wider movement of workers and oppressed.

Alfred’s aforementioned interview with the Toronto Star, unfortunately, seems to indicate a return to the ideas and methods of Bob Kinnear and Frank Grimaldi; that is, to the same ideas and methods that have been largely responsible for the defeats and dysfunction of the past decade. Alfred, like Kinnear before him, and unlike Santos, is a competent speaker. It is the content of the speech, however, not the form, that ultimately matters. And most importantly, there is the need to translate words into action. That is the real lesson of the Santos regime. Fighting words need to be translated into fighting action. So long as this new leadership refuses to fight, more defeats will ensue, and discontented ATU 113 workers will eventually look for another leadership.