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Hamilton transit in the Age of Austerity

By Blake McCall and Caitlin Craven - Rank and File, November 29, 2017

Editor’s introduction: This is the second half a two-part series on how austerity has damaged public transit. In this article Blake McCall, a Hamilton bus operator and ATU Local 107 member, and Caitlin Craven, a CUPW Local 548 and local Fight for $15 and Fairness organizer, examine how decades of underfunding has undermined Hamilton’s transit system, the HSR.

Like all transit systems in the province, the HSR was the victim of city budget cuts in the 1990s stemming from provincial cuts under Premier Mike Harris and others.  A startling statistic is that the total number of buses on the street was higher in the 1980s than it is now, despite the city having grown in size. This unsurprisingly has seen a drop in ridership from 29 million trips per year in the late 1980s to roughly 22 million trips per year today.  In recent years the city has started to put more money back into the system, but it has never recovered from these cuts.

Pain and fatigue

One of the clearest examples of austerity in the HSR is the recent purchase of buses from Nova.  Metrolinx, the ten-year-old Ontario crown agency designing to manage transportation in the Golden Horseshoe, has a deal with Nova Buses, a Montreal-based company owned by Volvo. Cities in Ontario have been using this arrangement to purchase bulk orders of Nova buses at lower prices.  Hamilton had been buying New Flyer buses which had a better workstation set up for operators and were better liked by drivers – but didn’t come with the same bulk order deal.

Since day one, the new Nova Buses have had a myriad of problems not least of which is that the driver’s seat lacks basic ergonomics for a job where you spend 8-10 hours seated.  As a result, drivers in Hamilton have been experiencing increased lower back pain, numbness in back and legs, and general fatigue.

Management clearly accepts there is a problem since buses going forward will come with better seats, but they are refusing to spend the money to fix the seats in the ones they have already purchased.  Given that buses stay in service for 12-15 years and drivers can’t choose their bus, many will continue to face back problems.  Down the line, more absence from work and WSIB claims are likely, but austerity favours short term gains over long term visions.

Like the $1 billion dollars in transit money offered to Hamilton by Premier Wynne, what looks like expenditure and investment is actually attached to continued austerity.  In the case of Nova buses, it means broken bodies that will have a hard time accessing benefits.  In the case of LRT, a profit-driven system that will squeeze out riders and drive down working conditions.

The symptom of absenteeism

The most recent uproar about driver absenteeism is also a symptom of longer standing austerity within the system.  Despite what management says, the HSR is understaffed and has been for a long time.

ATU President Eric Tuck goes as far as saying in his open letter to Hamilton City Council: “If every single operator who is off sick, on vacation … or on emergency leave were to show up and work 40 to 50 hours per week, HSR still wouldn’t have enough staff to fill all the work on the schedule.”

At almost no point in the past two years has a driver not been able to find an overtime shift to take, with many working the maximum 60 hours per week on a regular basis.  This reliance on overworked bodies in a job that requires physical and mental acuity is unsustainable.  All it took was a small increase in people declining overtime and burning out for a ‘crisis in absenteeism’ to become public.

And public it has become.

With people across the city not able to get to work and school because of buses simply not being on the road, or people using mobility devices waiting as full buses pass them by (more than usual in this already underfunded system), public attention has focused on HSR.  For drivers, not having a bus in front of you on a busy road like King Street means taking on a double load of passengers, dealing with their frustrations and stress, getting behind and not thus not having any breaks.  It also means going home to try and make a decision about whether you can face tomorrow knowing it will likely look the same.

In a cruel reflection of austerity’s violence, at least five assaults on drivers have happened since the City started blaming drivers for the missing buses.  Unfortunately, too much attention is being focused on drivers as individuals not coming to work and not enough on the system and management choices that are causing the stress and fatigue.

Under the circumstances, then, it was nothing short of thrilling to see ATU 107 put the blame squarely on management and call for their resignations. The bigger picture, though, is that the crisis of absenteeism would not be happening with better funding.  If there were adequate numbers on spare board, if drivers had longer run times on routes so that they could actually take proper breaks, and if the use of overtime to fill gaps were the exception not the rule.  The threat of underfunded services is no different than the threat of privatization and the solution is the same: an end to austerity in public services.

The bigger picture and building movements

A central hurdle in the struggle to put the pieces together is the way austerity has happened in Canada.  In contrast to the UK and many US states where funding cuts have been dramatic and sparked dramatic backlash, the Canadian way of power, as in so many things, is death by a thousand cuts.  This makes it harder to see the big picture and less obvious to draw a link between each moment of defunding and the structure of neoliberalism.

In addition to the cuts, neoliberalism has wrecked havoc on our political movements and imaginations, lowering our expectations for ourselves and for what we could win together. It isn’t surprising, then, that campaigns remain focused on the moment of privatization as something tangible to latch onto.  The problem is the way this limits our ability to truly create visions of what we want and what we deserve.  There is a clear crisis in the labour movement in Canada when again and again the focus is limited to the moment of private ownership and the desire to protect jobs and membership.

As American union organizer Jane Macalvey has said, unions are not (and should not be) distinct from the broader community of working people. ATU’s membership are also people who take the bus, who are facing run-away housing costs, too few child care spaces, and student debt.  Why, then, does the Union politics stop when the bus is brought back to the garage? Neoliberalism’s role in making access to life’s basics more unequal than ever matters across our whole community, and unions have the responsibility (and resources) to be part of the fight against these conditions.

With no political party actively putting forward an anti-austerity agenda, there is not use waiting for the next election to bring change.  Instead, we can and must use our resources towards having  workers and service users imagine a better way to live their lives and build the movements capable of taking on inequality.  Anti-privatization campaigns present catalysts for action, but often lean too far in favour of the status quo.  It is true that transit will not be better if it’s privatized, but transit cannot be good, fair, and equitable unless it is fully funded and funding will not emerge in the current climate of concessions to the needs of corporations and their shareholders.

If we want to stop the vision neoliberal capitalism has given us, of declining standards of living, declining ability to live on a warming planet, and increasing inequality, we need to offer alternative visions of what we desire and what we should expect. Workers’ movements against privatization need to be movements against austerity.  There are examples that Keep Transit Public can build on to move forward, from the Fight for $15 in both Canada and the US that has shifted debates on low-wage work, to the proposals by CUPW (Canadian Union of Postal Workers) to reimagine the role of Canada Post by expanding services to things like Postal Banking.  It boils down to remembering that privatization is the end goal of austerity in public sector funding.  Attacking the source, as much as the symptom, is the best way to build the movements we need.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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