On April 23, 2020, Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) CEO Rick Leary announced 1,200 transit workers were to be laid off. Management is also freezing all salary increases for non-unionized employees, reducing overtime and stalling any new hiring. This announcement comes as a slap in the face to workers who put their lives at risk every day to provide essential transit service to millions of Torontonians. 

These job cuts are said to be necessary cost-saving measures as transit ridership has dropped by 70-80 per cent, resulting in a financial loss of $90 million. The layoff of 1,200 TTC workers (including 1,000 unionized employees) will result in transit service being reduced by 20-30 per cent. TTC management claims that this will align service levels to the current demand, but with talks of reopening the economy, ridership is sure to increase. 

Even now there are reports of congestion on buses and streetcars, leading to dangerous overcrowding and threat of infection. While fewer people are taking the TTC as a whole, there is a pressing need to provide frequent and safe transit for the thousands of essential workers who have no alternative to the TTC for traveling to work. There have been posts and videos of people crowded at stops for 30 minutes, waiting for the next bus, before being squeezed into already packed transit. Dozens of bus routes have been running at full capacity, putting drivers and passengers at risk. 

Management against the workers

Initially, TTC management tried to blame the people, saying, “what we really need is for customers to make good decisions around physical distancing and, if needed, wait for another vehicle if the first one is busy.” However, the option of waiting doesn’t exist for grocery clerks, nurses and construction workers who normally work very strict schedules. 

At the beginning of April, the TTC came out with a plan to add buses to about a dozen of these congested routes, but the rollout has been lagging behind demand and crowding continues to be an issue. The additional layoff of 1,200 workers will only exacerbate the situation as service will be reduced. The TTC has blamed workers for taking time off during COVID-19, claiming this is the main reason for the lag in adding buses to congested routes. Yet if we look at what management has done so far for the safety of their employees, it is no wonder many have been forced to take their health into their own hands by avoiding the workplace altogether. 

Scandalously, TTC management initially refused to let workers wear masks, stating that it violated the uniform code and telling workers, “if you’re caught wearing it, you will be R.O.D (Relieved of Duties).” When bus drivers were calling for limiting the number of riders per vehicle, management refused to endorse the idea. 

Workers force concessions

This has led to a situation were workers are increasingly forced to take matters into their own hands. On March 11, for example, 12 streetcar maintenance staff refused to carry out their work due to lack of provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and lack of clarity over safe work procedures. On March 24, three subway operators refused to work after a positive COVID-19 test at their workplace resulted in no quarantine measures. On April 15, 38 bus operators across two divisions refused work over the lack of provision of masks and other critical safety issues. And finally, on April 18, eight bus maintenance workers refused work over a lack of measures to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak at their workplace.  

In response to these actions, management have been forced to start providing masks, but have also stated that it will be several weeks before they can provide them for everyone. In the meantime, cases of TTC frontline staff catching COVID-19 are growing. As of May 2, there have been 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among TTC workers, with more than 200 in self-isolation. The layoffs and cuts add insult to injury, as transit workers will now be forced to complete their essential work amidst ever worse crowding on buses. 

The series of work refusals that have occurred so far have served a useful purpose in putting pressure on TTC management to make necessary changes and provide safety equipment. There are limits to this tactic, however. In every case where TTC workers have refused work so far, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) ruled in their subsequent inspections that no substantial changes were required and that the workers must return to their assigned work. This is a result of the fact that the MOL is only conducting these inspections by phone, and moreover, that the inspectors are actually now being required by the government to consult with the employer before making their decision! Such a farcical arrangement shows that these so-called “neutral” government inspectors have been totally compromised, and are only carrying out the orders of management at the end of the day.

All of the above demonstrates that while many workers continue to face a question of life or death every day by merely taking public transit to get into work, the government is consistently prioritizing keeping Ontario “open for business” at whatever the social cost. As of April 30, Ford is already talking about reopening the province, which will risk reigniting the epidemic just as we are beginning to flatten the curve. This government cannot be trusted to ensure the health and safety of TTC frontline staff or workers who rely on public transit to get to work. 

Union response

It is clear that the money is there to fund transit. Canadian corporations are hoarding more than $1 trillion in uninvested dead money. This stockpile of wealth didn’t stop the federal government from showering them with more than $500 billion in loans, tax deferrals, and bailouts, plus a 75 per cent wage subsidy. 

Carlos Santos, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, has looked to lobby the provincial and federal government for “immediate emergency funding” as a solution. Doug Ford promptly replied that the province doesn’t have a “money printing machine”. This response should not be surprising, as the whole of Ford’s reign prior to the pandemic consisted of stripping every essential and social service to its bare bones. He even planned to privatize entire sections of the TTC through his infamous “subway upload”! At the same time, he was able to fund $275 million in tax cuts for the rich.

It’s the same old story: cuts for the workers and bailouts for the bosses. So what is to be done then? We must be blunt: lobbying doesn’t work. These governments don’t care about us and only respond when confronted with the power of the workers.

The work refusals provide important lessons as to what tactics are effective. By relying on our own forces and collectively refusing unsafe work, management came under pressure and was forced to act. Across the globe, we’ve seen work refusals and stay-home strikes serve as the driving force for ensuring COVID-19 health protocols are met. In Detroit, for example, city bus drivers forced management to make changes by going on a wildcat strike for just one day! By refusing to report to work, safety demands were met and passenger fare collection was also suspended, benefitting the public. 

In Toronto, TTC workers must rely on their own collective strength to prevent the layoffs and to ensure the health and safety of workers and passengers is protected. The power that we as workers have is that we are the ones who make society function. Work refusals and wildcat strike action have shown to be the only sort of actions that can win.

What is to be done?

Since the pandemic hit, TTC management have proven ineffective at implementing necessary safety measures and have utterly failed to protect both workers and passengers. They have continually played TTC workers off against riders and punished both with cuts to service and layoffs. 

Instead of putting the burden on riders through cuts to service, or on workers via layoffs and cutbacks, we should put the burden on big business—those who have been getting all the bailouts and tax cuts while sitting on mountains of cash. Therefore, socialists demand that public transit be free of charge. Otherwise our livelihoods will always be tied to the farebox, which the management uses to put us at odds with the public.

Throughout this pandemic, it has been the transit workers who have put forward necessary solutions such as limiting the number of passengers on vehicles, ensuring PPE for frontline staff, and drawing attention to congested routes. This proves that the workers are the ones who know best how to run the TTC.

It therefore only makes sense that the TTC be placed in the hands of the workers, rather than unelected bureaucrats who are only concerned with the commission’s bottom line. Instead of threatening the livelihood of the 1,200 workers, a TTC under democratic workers’ control, connected to a broader socialist plan of production, would find the necessary resources to maintain the service and provide hazard pay and protective equipment for their employees.

COVID has shown us all that is rotten under capitalism. Transit workers can take the lead in helping to bring down this diseased system and build a new socialist society.