Source: Richard Eriksson/Flickr

On Wednesday Feb. 23, the heads of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) held a press conference to bring attention to a recent spate of violent assaults against two employees who were both stabbed. Assaults on Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) workers are a result of a systemic breakdown of management. Enough is enough; unions must take back control of health and safety.

Growing Violence Against Workers

At a media press conference, Marvin Alfred, President of ATU Local113 representing 12,000 workers, and John Di Nino, President of ATU Canada representing 34,000 workers, outlined that TTC workers lack comprehensive de-escalation training and resources to deal with the rising crisis of mental health among passengers. Three TTC workers shared their stories of vicious, unprovoked assaults.

According to TTC statistics, which are very limited, there were 67 transit worker assaults in the last three months of 2021. But these were only the ones reported. With ridership reduced due to COVID-19 at the time, this number represents a  high frequency of assaults. Aside from Toronto, there has been an uptick in assaults on transit workers in Halifax, Edmonton, and Vancouver, among others. Across Canada, there were 2,000 reported assaults against drivers alone in 2021. Transit riders have also been victims in these instances.

According to De Nino, morale is at an all-time low across every transit agency: “We have been on the front lines of the pandemic and with little to no protection… we asked for masks and they said no… we asked for barriers and they said no… we asked for priority access to vaccinations and they said no.”

If there was any indication that the TTC and other bosses do not fundamentally care about the health and safety of workers, this fact reveals it.

The TTC puts the primary blame of assaults on operators solely on fare disputes, but this is the TTC attempting to turn the blame on the workers. Maintenance workers have been assaulted. How can this be about fares when maintenance workers don’t deal with fares? This lack of understanding of the problem shows the disconnect between TTC management and their workers.

Operators have been assaulted for putting their bus out of service due to mechanical problems, for not knowing where a particular street is located, for driving too slow, and for missing stops. Many of the assaults are unprovoked, as the three workers at the news conference detailed.

Daniel Medina, a subway operator, was punched in the face, accruing dental damage, an ankle sprain and torn ACL. He was minding his own business, checking his work schedule, when the assailant blindsided him.

Many of these incidents go unreported. The procedure for reporting such incidents is for operators to “stop and stay” until police and/or a supervisor arrives. There has been a significant communication breakdown when operators report an emergency. Calls are often dropped or not answered, signals not available, and delays from Transit Control in relaying emergency calls to the police. Procedures are not followed where it comes to silent alarms. When the operator feels a call could provoke an assault, they use a one-way communication to relay their position and their concerns. Transit Control risks this operator further by calling on a two-way communication line. 

These bureaucratic delays put the operators in further danger of being assaulted by the assailant or by other passengers that are upset at the delay. 

Capitalism Making the Problem Worse

We have seen an escalation in assaults due to the pandemic. Passengers are increasingly agitated about being crammed into full vehicles. The TTC has always normalized overcrowding and a worldwide pandemic has not changed their position on it. This amounts to willingly putting the lives of transit workers in danger – some of whom have died and many of whom have fallen ill as a result.

The City of Toronto is also facing a mental health crisis, even worse among the poorest members of society. This has been compounded by evictions and job losses due to the exploitation of big businesses and landlords during the pandemic.

The consistent trend in these assaults is passenger frustration with service reductions, and operators are not given the resources and do not have safe ability to de-escalate individuals facing a mental health crisis. But there can only be so much expected from an operator. After all, their main task is to safely take passengers from point A to point B, alone, interacting with thousands of passengers on a daily basis.

The ATU leaders called for funding for de-escalation training to help mitigate interactions with those experiencing a mental health crisis. But on top of de-escalation training, the TTC requires a dependable communication system. Its current system has proven to be substandard when operators need it the most. 

TTC Transit Control has also been impotent in answering emergency calls in a timely manner. The snow storm on Jan.17th, 2022 was an example of this incompetence. Many operators activated emergency calls that were unanswered, leaving them stranded in their buses for hours.

This is the accumulated result of years of underfunding, job cuts, and slashes to standard of living for workers at the transit commission.

How do we end the violence?

It is clear to everyone that there is a crisis facing transit workers. But as illustrated, the TTC and their friends in government do not care. The pandemic has shown ever more clearly that for them, lives are not as important as their quarterly profits.

At the news conference, union executives explained some of their key demands to solve the crisis of rising violence. They demanded adjustments to the criminal code, to raise consequences against assailants. But increasing incarceration and punishment actually exacerbates the problem, as shown in any country that does it. Of course assailants need to be punished and prevented from re-offending, but amending the criminal code is a smokescreen to a much deeper problem.

Union leaders demanding more funding for resources, such as more personal protective equipment like knife-slash preventive vests, is useful. But it should come directly out of the profits of TTC management, and more broadly out of the money that is being spent subsidizing big business by the government. Over $700 billion was doled out to big business during the pandemic, most of it into the pockets of speculators who gambled it on the stock market; meanwhile, front-line workers have been left in the cold. The ATU can play a leading role in demanding this corporate welfare be repaid to fund public services.

At the conference a reporter asked about the safety of operators in regards to fights over fares. In response, De Nino said: 

“…operators can leave a customer’s fare where it is, if they can pay, they pay, if not they don’t… if we had a fare-free transit system, and if we had dedicated operational funding, that could mitigate some of those circumstances, we might be in a more favourable position.”

It is an undeniable fact that a fare-free transit system would dramatically reduce violence against operators. Not only because this would remove a point of contention, taking away operators from the front line of enforcing fares, but because it would help the poorest and most vulnerable working-class people in cities. It would play a part in taking people out of poverty, providing the right to travel freely to work and access essential services.

A fare-free transit system is a demand that should be front and centre of the ATU and other unions who represent workers in the transit system. It should also be at the forefront of the platform of the NDP and other left-wing politicians who claim to represent transit workers and any worker that takes transit. But how we achieve a fare-free transit system is critical, as we can’t rely on the bosses or the government to hand it to us; we have to fight for it.

We cannot trust the wealthy CEOs and heads of transit commissions, or their wealthy friends in big business and government, who purposefully put the burden of a failing transit system on the backs of transit workers. Only workers can devise the best plan for health and safety. 

The pandemic has shown us that management does not care for the health and safety of workers, and now the issue of workplace assaults adds injury to insult. It is imperative that our union campaign for workers’ control of health and safety, and be willing to take militant action to achieve it. We need to back up this demand with the call for fare-free transit, for the benefit of transit workers and the wider working class. Finally, we need to understand that the main driver of all this violence and alienation is the capitalist system as a whole. We need to win our unions to a socialist perspective against capitalism, to fight against the system and solve the problem at its root.