Striking transit workers vote for arbitration

Metro Transit buses and ferries may be running as early as Wednesday after the union representing more than 700 striking transit workers voted Tuesday evening in favour of binding arbitration.

It’s now up to Halifax regional council whether to agree to arbitration.

By Kelsey Power

Transit workers stand in solidarity at rally Sunday in Grand Parade Square. (Kelsey Power photo)

Metro Transit buses and ferries may be running as early as Wednesday after the union representing more than 700 striking transit workers voted Tuesday evening in favour of binding arbitration.

It’s now up to Halifax regional council whether to agree to arbitration.

The issue that has been the main stumbling block for the two sides is scheduling.

The HRM has been trying to initiate a system of block picking or rostering as opposed to the current cafeteria-style pick system. The city says that will cut down overtime and operational costs.

Mayor Peter Kelly said Monday morning the current style of choosing shifts is outdated.

“It takes 24 days; that’s why it is expensive, and plus it incurs people to choose to maximize their overtime. The people that are on this pick board, the top 70 make $26,000 dollars a year in overtime. So, we’re trying to again restructure it so that the long-time personnel can still pick their shifts, but it will help us reduce the overtime costs substantially.”

Shane O’Leary, the vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union for the past three years, as well as a bus driver for the past 13, says overtime is unavoidable.

“There’s overtime always for the unexpected in the transit industry. You have to have somebody behind the wheel at all times.”

The current system allows the most senior of the 750 transit employees to choose their work schedules first.

O’Leary would like to see the current system stay in place.

“This is a union that’s been around for 103 years, and as far back as anybody can remember this system has been in place. This is the way we pick our work and the city is trying to shut it down, and they’re misleading the public on why.”

MONO-022editedShane O’Leary discusses the main issues for a transit worker. MONO-023editedMayor Peter Kelly gives the HRM’s point of view.

The HRM has told the public that the union’s proposition of keeping their current scheduling system as well as asking for wage increases of 8.25 per cent over three years would cost $8.8 million. The city says its plan to settle the strike would cost $2.1 million.

The ATU posted its own calculations, finding the difference between the two offers would be $2.2 million.

Although as the strikers, and O’Leary see it, it’s not about the money but quality of life. “The wages were a small part of it, but we’re always flexible on wages. The employer wanted to cut back on everything; they’re trying to solve their deficit with our contract. That’s why we’re on strike. They’ve pushed us out of the workplace.”

Yet, according to Kelly there is no deficit. In fact he said, “there is a surplus this year, of probably $3.5 million dollars.”

O’Leary remains sceptical, saying, “every two weeks they save about $2 million dollars in pay by keeping us off of the road.”

John Margetts was with the ATU for 28 years and retired less than two weeks ago. He said, “I feel sorry for everyone; seniors who can’t get to their appointments, students pulling out their tuition cause they can’t get to class. It’s a shame, but the city has total control.”

In his office at City Hall, Kelly said, “Nobody wanted a strike, nobody wants a strike and we want them back as soon as possible. We’ll try to reach out and hopefully they’ll be prepared to reach out as well.”