Strike out

The union and workers want better conditions. The city wants to save on some cash. Everyone else just wants a service restored—a service integral to the day-to-day lives of the working and student population.
To get drivers back in the buses, operators back on ferries, and the lives of Haligonians back to normal, the union is going to have to be a little more considerate of what everyone else wants.
Since the transit union announced the beginning of its legal strike on Feb. 2, the lives of thousands have become significantly more difficult. People walk unreasonable distances, pay unreasonable amounts of money and take unreasonable amounts of time to get where they need to be. As students, it’s hard to succeed at school when you can’t find a way to get to class. One student at Saint Mary’s University had to drop his semester because of the strike.
As inconvenient as the strike may be, it’s important that we, as transit users, look carefully at the reasons behind it. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508 (ATU) represents bus drivers and ferry operators working for Halifax Metro Transit. One of the factors pushing the union to strike was the city’s desire to implement a new scheduling system that will give workers less control over the shifts that they work. Since 1908, employees have picked their shifts in a way that has been referred to as “cafeteria style.” They select each individual shift they would like to work over the course of a three month period.
Metro Transit has proposed introducing a system called rostering. Collections of shifts to be worked by an individual employee over a week would be assembled, and instead of picking each shift they want to work, drivers would pick their collection of shifts.
The city suggests that implementing rostering would reduce the amount spent paying employees who work overtime hours. On Nov. 30, 2011, Jim Cooke, former Chief Financial Officer of HRM, released projections that Metro Transit is expected to exceed their budget by just under three million dollars this year. Cooke stated that about a million of this sum results from overtime wages that Metro Transit did not anticipate. Overtime wages were already an expense—in 2009, drivers were paid upwards of 2.5 million dollars in overtime.
The government’s desire to implement a more cost-effective scheduling system is extremely reasonable. The current system leaves upwards of 80 shifts each week unassigned, to be picked up on overtime pay. Picking shifts by week instead of by day would leave fewer shifts uncovered.
As someone who has worked in the service industry, I can say that having the right to choose your shifts at all seems pretty lofty. Many workplaces—stores, restaurants, restaurants, schools—assign shifts regardless of when employees prefer to complete their hours. It’s hard not to think that maybe employees don’t need so much control over their shifts as to pick the exact hours that they are going to work every day. To a lot of service industry employees, picking a package of shifts to be worked each week would make life a walk in the park.
On Thursday Jan. 2, when the strike began, ATU president Ken Wilson told Metro News that the city had forced the workers to strike on the basis that “They don’t understand the business.” Maybe, then, the business should be explained to them, because the demands of the union can seem pretty unreasonable to an outsider. The city’s failure to “understand the business” doesn’t seem like a reason for transit workers to need to pick exactly which shifts they are going to work every single day.
When HRM proposed to implement the new scheduling tactic, they also offered to instate a six per cent increase in wages for transit workers over the next three years. Another offer even excluded the change in scheduling, and still proposed a 3.5 per cent increase in wages. Nevertheless, the ATU turn down every offer, sometimes complaining when HRM negotiators walk out on meetings. In the midst of conflict, it’s really important for everyone to be a little bit considerate of other people. The role that transit workers play in our society is a crucial one, and their jobs are by no means easy. Still, as per their rights as laborers, it seems like they’re pretty well-off, and when times are tough economically, everybody’s going to have to help bear the burden.

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

One reply on “Strike out”

The Watch has a responsibility to show a variety of opinions on topics – especially ones so important to students and Haligonians.
I don’t know when the author of this piece submitted her article, but the transit union offered to go to binding arbitration last week. It was the city that refused. We could have been taking the number 1 by now if the city had have agreed.
It’s easy to attack the bus drivers who make more money than any of us students, but unfortunately, the situation is much more complicated.
I would encourage the Watch to expand its coverage of the transit strike, and perhaps go speak with those on both sides of the discussion.

Leave a Reply