Basics Issue #9 (May 2008)
On May First 1886, more than 400,000 workers in Chicago held a demonstration during a nation wde labour strike. They were demanding an 8-hour workday and although this was a struggle that resulted in the deaths of several labour activists and leaders it lead to the eventual adoption of the 8-hour workday. From this point on, the First of May would be recognized as International Workers Day in celebration of the rights, struggles and victories of everyday workers.
International Workers Day marks the importance of workers’ fundamental right to hold demonstrations, protests and to go on strike to demand safety, higher wages, union recognition and, ultimately, justice. The purpose of striking is not only to give workers a unified voice, but also to establish social and economic equality between workers and employers. Throughout history, strikes have been a symbol of workers’ collective strength and commitment to justice.
On April 25th when the TTC’s 9,000 strong workforce rejected the contract under negotiation and overwhelmingly voted to strike, thousands of riders were left stranded and frustrated at everything ranging from fare costs, route frequency, dirty subway stations and a supposedly greedy workforce. Premier Dalton McGuinty and Mayor David Miller reacted quickly and called an emergency session of the legislature-at which time Back-To-Work legislation was passed bringing an abrupt end to the 2 day strike.
So why do transit fares seems to rise so often and why do riders feel like they are getting ripped off? Under Mike Harris’ Conservative government of the 1990s the TTC budget, which used to receive 50% of its operating costs from the province of Ontario, was slashed leaving behind an aging and severely under-funded public transit system. Thus while the city of Toronto continues to grow and with it demands for a better transit system, inadequate funding from all levels of government have left the TTC crippled and unable to respond to riders’ needs.
As workers struggling to keep up with the ever-rising cost of living and poor working conditions, the recent TTC strike invites us to reflect on some of the key issues at stake during the demonstrations held leading up to and following the first International Workers Day. If the province refuses to provide adequate funding for public transportation at the same time that it beefs up the police’s operating budget with millions of additional dollars, what message is government sending to transit users who must pick up the tab? If 400 TTC managers earn more than $100,000/per year, who really holds power within the TTC? If workers’ right to strike can be so easily overruled without challenge from any of the main political parties, who can workers rely on to represent their interests? And if the mainstream media and politicians alike purposely and aggressively pit the public against a workforce who has a legitimate claim to better working conditions why do we so easily accept this antagonism when neither politicians nor the media represent our interests?
Preventing employees’ ability to strike over labour relation issues undermines the democratic rights of workers. Strikes are not only a key means for achieving economic justice but strikes also provide an opportunity for all workers to stand beside and support their brothers and sisters struggling for better conditions. Forcing workers to end their strike and stripping them of their right to strike on the basis that they provide an essential service isn’t justifiable and it sets a dangerous precedent that erodes the rights of ALL workers, not just those involved in the dispute.
If more than 1.5 million of us ride the TTC every weekday to get home, to school and to work, we should look for ways to build alliances with the 9,000 TTC drivers and maintenance staff that make this possble rather than divert our frustrations at them. If politicians and mainstream media are so invested in pushing an antagonism between TTC workers and the general public where there isn’t one, why should we buy it? We shouldn’t. We should work together to demand a healthy public transportation system that is well funded, well run and well supported. ?