I live in Toronto. I live right in the city, and have no car. I get around using public transit – the TTC. Over the weekend, TTC employees went on strike, against a deal that wasn’t all that transparently presented in the media but the contentious part of which involved the increasing use of short-term contracts by the employer (that’s my understanding anyway). The strike took effect midnight on Friday/Saturday. On Sunday, the provincial legislature met and all three parties – the Conservatives (who trashed and looted the province from 1995-2003), the ruling Liberals, and the New Democrats (whose electoral base is pretty much the public sector unions) pushed through back-to-work legislation in about a half an hour.
I suffered some inconvenience from the strike but it was that – inconvenience. You can imagine that my instinctive sympathies are with labor in labor-management disputes. This is no exception. But what is bothering me about this is the way the whole thing is presented in the media – the sense of entitlement for users (consumers) and the utter lack of rights or any legitimate case by the TTC employees (workers) is assumed. The media is full of hard-luck stories of commuters. Take this Toronto Star story:
“I’m very upset with them,” Tameika Fowler, 24, said of TTC workers as she rode an eastbound train on the Bloor subway line this morning.“They don’t think of other people. It was a selfish thing for them to do.”
On Sunday, Fowler took a $43 cab ride from Scarborough to Bathurst and Bloor Sts., where she works as a cashier at a Tim Hortons restaurant for $9 an hour. She worked a double shift from yesterday afternoon through this morning because she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get home at midnight after her shift.
“My eyes feel so heavy, I had to drink a lot of coffee just to stay up,” said Fowler, who thinks TTC drivers should be declared an essential service. “I think these people should be grateful for what they have.”
A single mother with an autistic four-year-old, she said she was tuned into the radio all weekend for updates on the strike.
“It was so stressful,” she said, explaining how she had to arrange for her cousin to care for her son overnight.
With all respect for Ms. Fowler’s difficulties, and acknowledging the fact that it was the TTC strike that put her out of pocket for $43, the fact that a single mother with an autistic 4-year old has to make do with $9/hr and very little social support is not due to the TTC or the union. It does, however, have something to do with the Conservative destruction of public welfare in the province since 1995 and the Liberals’ continuation of it since 2003. It’s understandable that Ms. Fowler might get angry at the workers, but that kind of anger – the anger of a single mother towards unionized workers – was the kind of anger that the Conservatives relied on to rule. Seeing it exploited by the Toronto Star just now gave me a reminder of the politics of those days. It wasn’t just the economic policies, the privatizations, the cuts to social services, and the attacks on workers (and, it is very much worth adding, single mothers and people on welfare). It was the ugliness of the whole public (and private) conversation that was encouraged by these very filthy politicians. The head of Ontario’s Conservative party, John Tory, lived up to the repulsive traditions of his party by talking about horsewhipping union leaders. Such talk ought to be beneath decent people, but it is standard fare for Tory and his party.
The first few years after 1995 were full of this kind of poison, and this weekend offered a little taste of those years, for me. The anger of riders at losing a service could be balanced with a discussion of the implications for workers, and what it might mean that any strike action in any important sector can be met by back-to-work legislation of such incredible legislative efficiency and the full support of all parties (and, evidently, the public and the media).
They also never seem to go out to talk to single moms when TTC fares go up, as they have gone up several times over the past couple of years. I suspect that fare hikes put Ms. Fowler out of pocket by much more than $43 over the past year. But the anger of riders can only be told in the media when it’s directed at unionized workers, not at the legislative priorities that decide that user fees of $2.75 (and rising) are acceptable levels for minimum-wage workers, students, and single moms to pay to get to work.
It’s a bit sad that my province and my city don’t seem to be able to have that kind of conversation.