These days, it seems that not a week goes by without Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty threatening workers with some new cut or attack. His latest volley is aimed squarely at the workers of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) who have been the most successful in fending off attacks from the bosses and the government.

On Monday 22nd Feb., Ontario Liberal MPP David Caplan tabled a private member’s bill that would declare public transit services in Ontario to be an “essential service.” The bill’s clear aim is to take away the democratic right to strike from TTC workers. The bill easily passed first reading at Queen’s Park, with 39 Liberals and Conservatives supporting the bill and 7 NDP MPPs opposing it.

Ontario’s transport minister stepped in to pour cold water on the bill. Liberal Kathleen Wynne said that there was no chance that the bill would be passed by the government because it “does not reflect the government’s position.” Wynne went on to say, “The municipality would have to ask for that action and that has not happened.” (Toronto Star, 23 Jan. 2010)

But, the following day, Wynne was overruled by her boss, Premier McGuinty. Although he denied asking Caplan to table the bill making the TTC an essential service, McGuinty did tell reporters, “I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for a really good public debate on this issue.” According to the Globe and Mail, McGuinty is demanding “more control” and a “more hands-on role” with the TTC. Last week, McGuinty had said that if the TTC wanted to secure permanent annual funding from the province, then it would have to allow the province more control over the TTC. The Ontario government refused to provide any extra funding for the TTC in this year’s budget.

George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi, two Liberals running for the Toronto mayoralty, have come out in favour of Caplan’s bill. Both men are threatening an all-out war with TTC workers. In talking about the municipal race, McGuinty also commented, “I think it would be healthy if this became something that achieved a little more prominence during the course of the campaign.”

Caplan’s bill is the latest in a long string of attacks on Toronto transit workers. The corporate media has released a rash of rabid demonization, with the gutter Toronto Sun at the forefront. TTC workers were blamed for an accident that pierced a hole in the tunnel lining that shut down the subway in the middle of rush hour at the beginning of January, stranding tens of thousands of passengers. (In the end, it turned out the accident was caused by a private contractor, who forgot there was a subway line under the spot he was digging.) The media has whipped people into frenzy by re-publishing pictures of a ticket collector apparently sleeping inside his booth. The media has taken the public’s justifiable anger over fare hikes (a monthly Metropass now costs $121), and re-directed onto the heads of beleaguered transit workers, rather than on governments’ refusal to properly pay for transit service for workers.

This is the same sort of strategy that Toronto City Council and the ruling class attempted to use in last summer’s civic workers’ strike. Then, the media tried to pit civic workers against everyone else. Even though the strike was unpopular with the public, CUPE locals 79 and 416 were able to fight back against most of the concessions being demanded by City Hall.

The TTC workers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 113, has been at the forefront of working class militancy, and therefore has become an important target for the ruling class. This is the union that has, in the past, driven out the TTC’s general manager, gone on a wildcat strike, and gone on a two-day strike that cost the capitalists millions of dollars in lost production. ATU 113 has effectively fought against wage cuts and any attempts to contract out more of the TTC’s operations to the private sector. The Toronto Star named ATU 113’s president, Bob Kinnear, as the “most hated man in Toronto.” What they really mean is that he is the most hated man in corporate Toronto.

Unfortunately, the transit union’s initial response to the media attacks was to lay much of the blame on foul behaviour by TTC riders! This is not going to build support for TTC workers. ATU 113 is an “old-school” militant local. It is very militant internally, defending the economic interests of its members. But, it has a huge blind spot when it comes to defending the interests of the wider working class. This allows the corporate media to isolate transit workers and leave them open to attack. Although the ATU strikes have shown that they can be successful even without popular support, it certainly makes strikes easier knowing you have an entire class behind you. Given the persistence of the Liberals’ attacks on public sector workers, one of the tasks for Bob Kinnear and the ATU leadership should be the building of class consciousness, to unite all workers against the bosses’ attacks. The key demand here is that of free public transportation. The ATU needs to be at the forefront of this demand, which will build class unity between transit workers and the rest of Toronto’s working class, both union and non-union. The new left-wing party, Projet Montréal, won a great deal of support in last year’s Montreal municipal elections by calling for free public transit as a key demand.

All of the problems are due to the TTC not being properly funded by governments. The TTC receives the lowest government subsidy of any public transit agency in North America, even though it moves nearly 1.5 million people everyday! It took years for TTC management to find money to install protective shields on buses, even though, on average, there is at least one TTC operator that is assaulted everyday. Aside from the Sheppard “stub-way” and the mini-line to the Scarborough Town Centre, there has not been any meaningful expansion to rapid transit in the city since the late 1970s. Both of the main subway lines are effectively operating at 100% capacity, even though Toronto’s population continues to grow. Instead of properly paying for a decent transit system, governments are passing the bill on to workers who cannot continue to afford massive fare hikes. With the fiscal crisis caused by their bailouts to the bankers and bosses, the ruling class is looking for even more cuts to services like the TTC.

As with their attacks on other public sector unions, the Liberals are looking to make an example of the TTC workers. ATU 113 has shown that workers can win their demands if they are not afraid to fight. The previous successes of the TTC workers have been an example for other striking workers. If the Liberals and Conservatives can break the TTC union, it would help to demoralize the rest of the working class.

All workers need to unite behind the TTC workers. The right to strike is a fundamental democratic right that needs to be defended by all workers. This bill, combined with back-to-work legislation for striking York University workers last winter, is a fundamental attack on workers’ right to organize. This bill could set a pattern where we could see many other workers be declared “essential.” An injury to one is an injury to all.

The NDP and the OFL need to organize around this in a major way. This cannot be any ordinary campaign. The fundamental rights of workers are at stake.

Defend the right to strike!

For free public transit!

Stop the demonization of public transit workers!

For the unity of union and non-union workers!