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Flashback: The 1998 Halifax Transit strike

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

THE disinformation blaming the current Halifax transit strike on the 763 workers and their union, Local 508 of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local (ATU), presents their struggle for their just demands as a unique local event in isolation from the neo-liberal, anti-social offensive by the state against public sector workers across Canada. The 2012 transit strike is also presented in an ahistorical prism, independent of any historical context. For the information of readers, I am reproducing an article written at the conclusion of the summer 1998 strike by John Cheeseman in Nova Scotia’s Shunpiking Magazine. Have the basic issues facing the transit workers and the transit riders changed substantially in 14 years? Why have they not been resolved?

Where to from here?

Is the most recent transit strike more a symptom than a disease?


Shunpiking Magazine

WHEN TAKEN AT FACE VALUE, the issue does seem to be about money. Yes, money was involved in the Metro Transit dispute. But if you were to dig deeper than media sound bites and uncover what is really going on, you might find that more was being fought over than paycheques and what can be put in a collective agreement.

Is the most recent transit strike more a symptom than a disease?

No doubt, some of the thousands of bone-weary walkers and cyclists, getting in shape in spite of themselves, and an army of reluctant drivers might think so. What could they think the strike was a symptom of?

Is it a symptom of a rift between those groups who each want to define a “just society?” If mass transit is a factor in this ideological tug-of-war, how did it become so?

Mass transit. To some wags, it might be called that, because in bad weather you spend most of your time praying the bus or ferry isn’t late. But, on a more serious level, mass transit, as we’ve come to know it, means the moving of large groups of people within a specified, usually urban, area. It exists mainly for the benefit of its riders and has a role to play in community building. Governments at the higher levels (provincial and federal) used to recognize this. Subsidies were provided to help keep systems running and for capital expenditures. Until a couple of years ago, the Nova Scotia Department of Municipal Affairs provided subsidies to Metro Transit and other systems; capital funding to buy transit vehicles (50 per cent to a maximum dollar amount) and funding per person served.

Lately though, the winds of change have begun blowing from a different direction, and most observers would agree that the new direction is the right of the political spectrum. There is to be (or at least supposed to be) no more indiscriminate doling out of taxdollars. Inefficiency and waste are in the past! If a program or social service isn’t pulling its weight, get rid of it, reduce it, or fob it off on private industry, who are supposed to do things better. There is another option, too: download the cost of a service directly onto its users.

Armies of workers lost their jobs and services cut to the bone in the name of “fiscal responsibility” and “debt-servicing.”

In keeping with this so-called “consumerist” or “user-pay” philosophy where, if you want something, you and you alone pay for it, everything that government was responsible is put under the microscope. All the services taxpayers took for granted were prodded and probed and examined to see where cuts could be made. Armies of workers lost their jobs and services cut to the bone in the name of “fiscal responsibility” and “debt-servicing.”

Mass transit also fell under the jaundiced eye of our policy poobahs.

the higher levels of government decided to make it a more local priority and have shifted, or want to shift, the cost of it down onto local government and riders

Mass transit is an interesting case. Because it is a service largely for urban areas, Metro Transit being a prime example, the higher levels of government decided to make it a more local priority and have shifted, or want to shift, the cost of it down onto local government and riders. Within the past three to five years, according to John Pearce of Transport 2000, a group dedicated to the preservation of passenger transport in Canada, many provinces have done just that. Ontario’s PC government want to make Go Transit’s commuter system the responsibility of newly-amalgamated Toronto (sound familiar?) and the Parti Quebecois want to do the same with the mass transit systems in Quebec.

In Nova Scotia, as noted earlier, subsidies were available until two or three years ago, when the ruling Liberals pulled the plug. Pearce says that since then, two systems – Yarmouth’s and Pictou County’s – have shut down. The systems in King’s County, Halifax and Sydney have largely survived because of the co-operation of the main players, or (in HRM’s case) the structure of a single governing system.

That doesn’t mean Metro Transit has come away unscathed. Using the subsidy from Municipal Affairs, Metro Transit upgraded its bus fleet every year, replacing older buses as needed. With the subsidy now history, Metro Transit’s manager, Brian Taylor, says that the number of replacements is now less than before. They’re paid for from Metro Transit’s general revenues and municipal taxes.

Metro Transit is currently one of, if not the most, cost-effective systems of its size in the country, with general revenues paying about 72 per cent of the total cost of the system. The national average is in the low 50’s. This cost-effectiveness is jeopardized, says Taylor, because of the projected increase in wages this year, as well as fuel costs and what he calls “general expenses.”

It looks like “cost-effectiveness” has been achieved – in part – by driving down the cost of labour; Halifax drivers are the second lowest-paid in Canada, with an average yearly wage of $29,000. Their salary has been frozen since 1990 – eight years. In 1994 a three per cent rollback was also imposed, reversed by the courts last year, and reinstated in April of this year. Moreover, it appears this freeze only applied to the union.

Driver Buddy Daye says that management, including some 15–20 inspectors, receive annual pay rises of some five per cent. With more raises probably coming, too, their wages are now about $10,000 more than in 1990.

On July 1st, a fare increase of five cents is taking place. This puts the cost of an adult fare at $1.55, a figure Pearce calls a nuisance, because now you’ll have to go fishing for an extra nickel every time you want to ride. That extra nickel, however, should bring in a half-a-million dollars to Metro Transit’s coffers to offset the increased costs, says Taylor.

The number of vehicles owned by Metro Transit breaks down like this: 185 buses, 16 Access-a-buses and three ferries – a number pretty much the same as it was five years ago. So, while the Municipality has grown through amalgamation, the transit system hasn’t. Right now, Metro Transit is largely confined to the urban core. A lot of the routes that go out into the more suburban areas also tend to run only at rush hours or on a less frequent schedule than more urban routes. They are called feeder routes. They usually take residents of the areas they serve and bring them in to more central terminals or transfer points, where the riders can take other routes into the urban core.

None of these routes is a moneymaker, although Taylor says the #1 Spring Garden and #80 Sackville “are near the break-even point.” All the routes ultimately depend on and support each other. He goes on to point out that Metro Transit isn’t meant to be a moneymaker. He says, “The idea is not to make money, but to minimize losses.”

Just what does “minimizing losses” mean?

To Eric Chisholm, a Metro Transit driver of 14 years experience, such a comment is “scary.” When a private sector workforce reduction mentality begins to creep in to a public service like transit, then everyone suffers. He looks at a very broad picture. Using the strike issue of contracting out and letting other bargaining units do one union’s work as a backdrop for his scenario, he talks about what might happen next. “You can rest assured what this means in the long run is the intent (on the part of the employer) to provide a thoroughly integrative, part-time workforce… these kinds of statements usually lead to loss of jobs.” Part time jobs tend to be low-paying, with little or no benefits. “What about fire or police services?” he asks. “Are they expected to turn a profit?”

Chisholm thinks there could be a solution to providing transportation to the areas in the HRM not presently served. He suggests, by way of an example, using a smaller bus, say, one that seats 20 people, to run to Ketch Harbour and Sambro. This service would bring the riders into a larger terminal, such as Herring Cove. Riders could transfer onto a main route, bringing them into the urban core for medical appointments or education and other services.

The service should be recognized for the vital system it is, he says. It’s a community builder, proving itself to be an integral factor in terms of social fabric. It allows for all walks of life to take part in the community and its culture. That makes Metro Transit a great equalizer. It’s a cornerstone, available to anyone who wants to use it; a tool for the community to grow and maintain itself.

When asked if there should be provincial and federal subsidies, Chisholm says that, first, we build viable, self-reliant communities of which transit is a part. That provides a firm economic base for the province, which in turn builds a strong country. The result would be worth the investment. “Certainly there should be consideration given by the different levels of government to subsidizing this very necessary and essential service.”

In reality, then, the strike could be seen as a battle-cry to preserve service. It’s a call to all who care, from the workers fighting to keep collective bargaining rights and a democratic workplace, to those who want Metro Transit to play a larger role in bringing everyone in the hrm to share as equals in community-building. Aboriginal spirituality saw the world as a gift, something its inhabitants didn’t earn, to be shared by all. Maybe they’re right. In order to get everyone to share themselves, their communities and resources, Metro Transit has a role, a role larger than just getting its riders in the urban core from point A to point B in a cost-effective manner.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

*At the time of writing, John Cheeseman of the Atlantic Broadcasting Institute and the son of a St. John’s transit worker was an editorial intern with Shunpiking Magazine, going on to become editor of The Charter, Placentia, on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland and Labrador

Shunpiking Magazine, June-July, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Issue #20)

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