By Jessica Lovell
Guelph Transit riders were left scrambling Monday morning when they discovered that their usual ride would not be showing up after the city made the call to lock out transit workers late Sunday night.
“I found out at 8 a.m. this morning,” Chris Benn, a regular transit rider, said Monday.
Benn, who takes the bus to get from his south end home to the downtown for work every day, said he was “scrambling to get a ride to work” and arrive on time. He ended up hitching a ride with a co-worker, so everything worked out.
But with no word on when the lockout will end, he expects transportation to be an ongoing issue.
“It’s going to be somewhat of a challenge to get downtown to get to work every day,” said Benn.
The city had threatened to lock out transit workers on July 14 if the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1189 was unwilling to accept what the city had called its “final offer.”
The lockout was averted with the two parties re-entering negotiations and reaching a tentative deal just before midnight on July 13.
But when workers came together to vote on the contract agreement on Sunday July 20, it was ultimately rejected.
“I thought everything had been resolved,” said Benn, noting how unexpected the service interruption was. “Everyone’s assumption was that this was taken care of last Sunday.”
Riders weren’t the only ones who were surprised.
Transit driver Mike Cathcart, speaking on behalf of a handful of transit workers gathered with signs outside city hall on Monday, said some of his fellow drivers learned of the lockout at their local Tim Hortons.
The city had posted the news on Twitter, he said. “That’s how some of them found out.”
With signs that said things like “if you won’t negotiate, then arbitrate. Let us Drive!”, transit workers in uniform picketed on Carden and Wilson streets, near the bus stop in front of city hall.
“We all showed up for work this morning. We were locked out,” said Cathcart, noting that they were in uniform because they wanted to be working.
The tentative agreement still didn’t satisfy workers, though.
“Basically, the language hadn’t changed much at all between the two offers,” said Cathcart.
Some of the concerns included ambiguity in the language that leaves certain matters – like authorization for absences – up to the discretion of supervisors, many of whom have little experience, said Cathcart.
Treatment of workers is also an issue, he said, citing a driver being suspended for relaying the concerns of a passenger.
Asked if there was anything positive in the tentative agreement, Cathcart said “money was increased a little, but it’s not about the money. It really isn’t.”
His personal feeling was that the two sides should have been able to agree on a one-year contract, and that would have given them time to sort out a longer-term agreement.
“We wanted to keep working,” said Cathcart.
For Benn, the service interruption feels like “just one of many inconveniences caused by the transit system, in general.”
He cited buses not running on schedule and hardships associated with the realigning of transit routes a couple of years ago among those inconveniences. Guelph Transit does not live up to the standards of transit services in neighbouring cities, he said.
Whether it’s the city or the transit workers who are to blame, “at the end of the day, the ridership gets caught in the middle,” said Benn.
The real challenge is that while some people take public transit because of its environmental benefits, many people take it because they need to.
“I’m surprised it’s not even considered an essential service,” he said.