HandyDart workers in Greater Vancouver, unionized under ATU 1724, are now on strike. According to their union president Dave Watt, “MVT [the private company in charge of operating HandyDart services] is looking to eliminate the pension plan, slash benefits, and cut shifts in half,” amongst other concessions they are looking to extract from workers. This is a big shift for HandyDart workers who have never struck in their 30-year history. At the heart of the dispute is a collision of interests as HandyDart service shifts from a user managed, non-profit service to a profit-making enterprise. This is a crisis for both users of the service, as well as the workers and their families who now find their backs against the wall. With 97% of HandyDart workers voting in favour of strike action, the workers have chosen to fight for their jobs and the quality service that users deserve.

HandyDart, a door-to-door “paratransit” service for people who cannot easily access regular buses, serves about 4000 people a day, primarily people with disabilities. It greatly enhances the quality of life for its clients, providing the means to access programs, services, health care, and daily necessities such as shopping, etc. It is a critical service that employs over 500 drivers, maintenance workers, and office staff.

HandyDart service used to cover eight different service areas in BC’s Lower Mainland, with five different organizations contracted to do the work. Most of these were non-profits, like the Pacific Transit Co-operative (PTC). The PTC was co-founded by Tim Louis, a former long-serving Vancouver city councillor, socialist, and activist. As a co-operative the PTC was managed by a board made up of service users. Indeed, it seems most of the service providers came from community-based social service organizations and were under contract with Translink, the organizing body for transit services in the Metro Vancouver region. The majority of HandyDart workers were at first organized in three different unions, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Canadian Auto Workers, and the BC Government Employees’ Union.

In an effort to supposedly improve the efficiency of HandyDart services, Translink put out a call for bids based on three expanded service areas instead of the eight smaller ones. The bidding process itself was shrouded in duplicity. Translink initially had wanted individual contracts for each of the three service areas, but one large corporation was able to leverage enough capital to squeeze out rival bids to win the rights to all three service areas. On 5th August 2008, Translink awarded a three-year $113 million contract for HandyDart service to MVT Canadian Bus Inc.

As of 1st January 2009, MVT took over the contract bringing all HandyDart workers under one employer. Around the same time, workers decided to concentrate their forces by moving into one union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). MVT Canadian Bus Inc.’s parent company is California-based MV Transportation Inc., which makes $510 million (US) per year. MVT employs over 11,000 workers across 24 states in the US. In fact, the Canadian subsidiary is a new entity and the HandyDart service is its first acquisition. Given MVT’s track record, HandyDart workers and users have every right to be concerned.

MVT has a history of dismantling paratransit services. In Austin, Texas, drivers and mechanics were involved in a protracted strike with their employer, Capital Metro; it turns out that the director of special transit services, Inez Evans, was a former employee of MVT. Capital Metro claimed that it needed to “streamline services,” which actually meant, “cutting regular taxi vouchers, increasing penalties for no-shows, minimizing the number of riders who are eligible, and cutting the hours when live operators will be in the … call centre.” In Washington DC, the city received a record number of complaints within the first three weeks of MVT taking over the operation of paratransit services in 2006, including the stranding of passengers and extended wait times.

Since being taken over by MVT, HandyDart service has become more inefficient. Many users are experiencing increased wait times, sometimes as much as an hour more than before. Not surprisingly, the corporate media have accused striking workers of “leaving thousands of our most vulnerable citizens at risk.” (Vancouver Sun, 25th Oct. 2009). The workers are well aware that those who use the service will be drastically affected by strike action and are maintaining some of the most essential services. Despite the obvious impact on service as a result of job action, many users are supportive of the HandyDart workers. In one letter to the press, a service user describes the deterioration experienced under MVT,

“The new company is paid “per head,” so it crowds riders onto the bus and expects the drivers to be across town in 10 minutes. Have you seen the traffic downtown? As a result I am often late for appointments and dialysis. The drivers aren’t offered a pension. They must pay part of their benefits. Senior drivers will be considered new employees and lose vacation time. They aren’t guaranteed hours, get shorter breaks, and their jobs may be contracted out. How ignorant is that? I’m glad the drivers are fighting for their jobs, and hopefully they’ll be able to go back to enjoying them and offering a great service.”

The comments read in the mainstream press are a classic example of how the bosses will manipulate and spin the situation to turn public attitudes against the workers. In reality, what is occurring is that HandyDart workers are taking a lead role in defending the interests of all workers, especially those who are less able to organize. A defeat for HandyDart workers could have a dampening effect on other workers and embolden other bosses into attacking their own workers’ living standards.

It is no surprise that privatization leads to greater inefficiency; profits become the motivating factor in the production of goods and services. The experience of HandyDart users in Metro Vancouver and across the United States is stark evidence of this.

After derailing negotiations with a pre-emptive application for a vote on their proposed offer, MVT was soundly defeated in their attempt to break the union. The company was demanding a wage well below what other bus drivers in the standard system received. Benefits were to be capped, and eliminated for casual workers (making it cheaper to hire casuals than to provide full time jobs). The corporation also wanted to contract out maintenance and office work. This so called “offer” was voted down by 94% of workers. At the time of writing, further negotiations have been scheduled for later in the week.

What the HandyDart workers are facing is nothing new, and they are definitely not alone; much support has been given from the community, other unions, and the NDP. Through struggle, workers better understand the struggles that other workers have had to endure, thereby developing true working class solidarity. In a labour movement that is all too often fragmented and atomized, these moments can undo decades of propaganda to the contrary by the bosses. This is best summed up by one HandyDart worker upon learning about the struggles of fellow transit workers in Austin, TX, “This is chilling…. they are in the same fight as us….”

Right across the continent and around the world, bosses are demanding concessions and workers are realizing that this cannot be allowed to happen. In the UK, postal workers are being forced to defend their jobs against casualization while in the US, Ford is demanding more concessions from their workers, even after the company reported over a billion dollars in profit. In Toronto, civic workers were even able to win a partial victory this past summer in their struggle to defend sick benefits. The only way forward is for working people to stand together, organize themselves, and remember with pride who they are. We need to prepare to fight back in solidarity with each other.

Together we are strong!

Letters of Solidarity for the HandyDart workers can be sent to:
Tyler Felbel, ATU 1724 Media Liaison, atu1724@shaw.ca.

You can join the solidarity group on Facebook by searching “HandyDart Workers Support Group”