Enough from Bob Kinnear. It’s time for the TTC to speak up

Is it just me, or is anyone else being driven batty by the progress of negotiations between the Toronto Transit Commission and its union? It’s not so much the anxiety of a looming strike—any day now, apparently—that gets under my skin as the entire public relations battle surrounding it. In this, the TTC is being totally owned by union head Bob Kinnear, who nonchalantly drops bombs every time he saunters up to the microphone. Among them, the TTC is playing hardball; the TTC doesn’t want to pay workers their full salary when they take time off due to on-the-job injuries; the presence of provincial mediators won’t solve anything; the TTC wants newly hired maintenance workers to take a 25 per cent pay cut; the negotiations are being undermined by the intransigence of TTC general manager Gary Webster. Clearly, the TTC is an evil empire. And what does the TTC have to say for itself in all this? Nothing.

As the days turn into weeks, we get an increasingly clear and sympathetic picture of what the union wants, while the city pops bromides by the handful. “We hope to accomplish a fair deal for our workers, and one that is good for the people of Toronto,” says TTC communications director Brad Ross. Luverly. Ross says that Kinnear is using the media to communicate with his members, perhaps suggesting that we hear his words through that filter. Yet when I put on my collective bargaining–Kremlinology hat to read between the lines of Kinnear’s pronouncements, it’s even more unnerving: he is stoking his members’ appetite for job action by blaming TTC negotiators for everything. To hear him tell it, management is trying to stiff the union out of injury pay while simultaneously selling out future generations of union members. And there’s no way the city can respond that won’t make things worse. Ross acknowledges as much: “We don’t want to say anything that will upset people.”

As bargaining tactics go, this one might best be titled “Soothing the Beast.” It’s a standard strategy, but one whose benefits to management are increasingly unclear, and not merely because it hands the union a bottomless can of public relations whup-ass with which to beat up TTC negotiators. Surely the TTC has something bigger in mind, some vision of what its transit operations ought to look like 10 or 20 years from now, one that requires the union’s co-operation—and one that taxpayers and TTC riders might also be interested in. In fact, I would argue that we have a right to know what that vision might be. It’s entirely possible that the TTC has no greater vision than what we already know: they want to expand service and hire more people. If they do, it’s a state secret. “When the time is right,” says Ross, “we will let people know what we are offering.” Which means either once a deal is reached or once the union walks out. In either case it may be too late.

Why not make the city’s position public at the outset? Why not tell the world how great the TTC could be, and then ask the union to be a part of that bold future? Why not, at the very least, talk publicly and lucidly about what the TTC needs from its employees? The city’s legion of TTC enthusiasts talk about this stuff all the time; it would be nice for the TTC itself to chime in right now, when it really counts for something. As former budget chief and former city councillor David Soknacki points out in his most recent column for the community weeklies, this is precisely what the city did in its last round of bargaining with the police: it insisted on a new staffing model and made great headway in negotiations as a result. He’s not the only one calling for more transparency: back in February, the mayor’s Fiscal Review Panel urged the city to negotiate more flexibility into its collective agreements and push harder to achieve continuous improvement targets.

Great ideas all, and I am keenly interested in what Bob Kinnear has to say about them. But until the TTC puts him on the spot, mum’s the only word from his mouth.


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