Fight not only about money, says union for striking public transit workers in Hamilton
Published November 9, 2023 at 3:41 pm
Chanting “ATU” and “No contract, no peace,” striking Hamilton Street Railway workers took to the streets of Hamilton on Thursday as the buses remained parked and they began their strike. It is the first transit strike in the city since 1998, which ended after 11 weeks.
The head of the union for 880 Hamilton transit workers says their fight is not just about money but also for better working conditions. However, the City told reporters this morning that the sticking point was only about wages and it stands firm on its final offer, which it felt was “reasonable” and would avoid worsening the financial burdens on Hamiltonians.
As workers hit the picket lines this morning (Nov. 9), Eric Tuck, head of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107, said he talked to many of them who showed “their resolve is strong and it’s firm.”
Tuck told reporters during a news conference this morning that their fight for a new collective bargaining contract is about getting a living wage that keeps pace with inflation and improving working conditions, which has been a problem for a long time.
Transit workers are in one of the few professions that have to “fight for access to washrooms,” Tuck said, noting that problem still isn’t resolved. He said HSR workers have to fight for five minutes to stand up, stretch their legs and even grab a bite to eat.
“We don’t get meal breaks, we don’t have standard eight-hour days,” Tuck explained. “Many work 10 to 12 hours a day to make that eight hours’ pay. That’s what transit workers do. But what we really do best is we show up every day to make sure that we keep these cities moving.”
Tuck said transit workers have been on the frontlines serving the community for 125 years. “We’ve been the lifeblood of this community, not to mention that we came out of a pandemic. For two-and-a-half years, we were on the frontlines keeping the city going, keeping our economy going, making sure that every critical worker was able to get to work. Whether they were in the food industry, whether they were in the health-care industry, we were there for them to make sure they got to where they needed to go.”
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‘Our members are getting priced out of the very community we’ve been serving for 125 years,’ says public transit union
While the City said the raise the union is asking for would cause hardship on taxpayers, Tuck said high inflation, including the increased prices of food, fuel and housing have hit workers hard.
He said the union is fighting for a living wage that keeps pace with inflation. The union’s request for a four-per-cent wage increase is in line with what the City gave non-union staff earlier this year, Tuck pointed out.
“Our members are getting priced out of the very community we’ve been serving for 125 years,” he said. “The price of housing in Hamilton has doubled over the last eight to 10 years, our wages have not. The price of fuel, the price of food, has all gone up, 30 per cent, 40 per cent.”
He said today the average transit worker makes about $71,000 to $72,000 a year. With the City’s final offer, it would increase to about $79,000 in four years.
Tuck pointed out that 1,100 non-union staff, such as managers and project managers, earn $120,000 to $160,000 a year and earlier this year received a four-per-cent base wage hike along with a market adjustment of up to an extra 11 per cent.
“If this City has money for them, goddammit they better have money for the frontline workers,” Tuck said, his voice booming. “We’re not about to become the working poor. We all have to rise together. If we’re not all in partnership, we’re getting left behind.”
In response to the non-unionized workers’ raises, the City said this morning that non-unionized workers are now paid at the 50th percentile, the middle of the salary range of comparable cities, pulling them up from the bottom half. As part of its retention strategy, the City said the recent wage increase for non-unionized employees reduced turnover rates to 5.23 per cent compared with 9.9 per cent last year. It said the largest increases were given to workers in non-management positions, such as receptionists, administrative assistants and clerks.
Tuck also mentioned the salary increase for Lora Fontana, Hamilton’s executive director of human resources. Fontana saw her salary rise by nearly $19,000 over the last four years, according to the Ontario Sunshine List. She made $212,016.91 in 2022.
“So who’s the greedy ones? We’re not the greedy ones,” he said.
The City said its final offer on wages addresses inflationary pressures and maintains Hamilton Street Railway workers’ position as the third-highest paid transit employees in comparable cities, behind Brampton and Mississauga.
The union’s requested wage increase of about 23 per cent over four years would translate to $17 million in wages, which would have to be covered by hikes in transit fares or property taxes, or both, the City said this morning.
It noted that the agreements struck with one union are used as the precedent for offers to our other unionized staff. A 23-per-cent increase for all 11 unions would mean more than $113 million over the next four years.
The City’s final offer was a 12.75-per-cent increase over four years, which was similar to the deal struck in September with the City’s largest union, CUPE 5167, for inside and outside workers. Since the City is now at the bargaining table with six other unions, the transit deal would have an “important impact” on those negotiations, it said.
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