OnDemand transit workers vote on union certification

·6 min read

Drivers who work for the region’s NRT OnDemand service are speaking out against what they say are poor working conditions, sometimes leaving them without breaks for nine hours at a time.

Via Transportation, a private U.S. company contracted by the Niagara Transit Commission, said the Ontario Labor Relations Board determined that 107 drivers were eligible to vote.

The drivers are affiliated with River North Transit, not Via, a spokesperson said.

The voting started at noon on Tuesday and was open for about 24 hours. Results have not yet been released.

On Monday, the Amalgamated Transit Union held rallies outside town halls in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Grimsby in support of the OnDemand drivers.

Union local president Chris Byford said in a news release that Via Transportation is “using taxpayer dollars to fund union-busting campaigns and Toronto law firms.”

However, Caroline Hawkins Pfister, Via’s director of public relations, said, “Via has not used any taxpayer dollars to fund external counsel. The union has also retained external counsel to represent its interests before the Ontario Labour Relations Board.”

Officials with the union claim the workers are being exploited. Via Transportation was contracted by the Niagara Transit Commission to supply shared ride services in parts of Niagara, including Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Via Transportation disputes the union’s allegations.

The union said that on Monday Via held all-day meetings at the Holiday Inn on Ontario Street in St. Catharines with its drivers and lawyers from Littler Mendelson, a prominent U.S. firm known for its so-called union-busting expertise.

Hawkins Pfister said no lawyers participated in any “union-busting” activities in Niagara.

“Everyone who was at the town hall was a Via employee who regularly works with our drivers,” she said in an email to The Lake Report.

Leah Tracey, a spokesperson for the Niagara Transit Commission, wouldn’t comment on the dispute.

“What I can tell you is that the Niagara Transit Commission has a contract with Via to deliver OnDemand service until Dec. 31, 2023, and we meet regularly with them to ensure they are meeting their contractual obligations,” Tracey wrote in an email to The Lake Report.

She said the transit commission will conduct a full service review later this year.

Byford said the union is trying to organize the workers “because they’re in transportation.”

Jeff Fereracag, one of the OnDemand workers, said, “The last six months, it’s been awful.”

Fereracag said lack of employee breaks and safety concerns were among the workers’ issues.

He said the tires on some of the vans are so worn down that they’d slide through stop signs during the winter.

Hawkins Pfister countered that “Via’s vehicle partners complete routine maintenance and always check to ensure vehicles are safe to drive.”

“Tires are routinely changed according to manufacturer kilometre standards. We work with drivers to inspect and self report any vehicle issues, and promptly take vehicles off the road for repairs.”

Sometimes, Fereracag said, he doesn’t get a proper break during his shifts.

“We could drive seven, eight or nine hours without a break,” he said. “No time to eat our lunch. Use the bathroom. Nothing.”

Workers’ contracts allow the company to suspend them for minor reasons, Fereracag claimed.

And if there’s a customer complaint, drivers face being suspended with no pay.

“Some of them will get suspended from renting (the van) for a week,” said Byford.

The company said it takes rider and driver complaints “extremely seriously.”

“We do not immediately suspend a driver unless the complaint meets a severity threshold and it is deemed unsafe to allow an operator on the road until investigation is finalized,” said Hawkins Pfister.

The union said drivers are paid $40 an hour, but must pay “about $18.99 plus tax” hourly to rent the van provided through the car rental company, Avis.

However, Hawkins Pfister said, “Drivers pay about $15 per hour for their vehicles and take home more than $26 per hour net.”

Occasionally, Byford said, shifts would be suddenly cut and drivers would only receive $40 pay for a day of work.

Fereracag said only six vans have been on the road between west Niagara, Port Colborne and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The region is contractually obligated to have 18 vans on the road, according to a news release from the union.

A woman in Port Colborne who required a wheelchair-accessible van was recently left waiting for a week before receiving transportation to her appointment, said Fereracag.

“We had one wheelchair van for the whole area,” he said.

Many customers have voiced complaints about having to wait up to two hours for service, said Fereracag.

He doesn’t blame them for being frustrated, but said OnDemand workers bear the brunt of the anger, “because we’re the face.”

An employee from Via Transportation on-site declined to answer questions from The Lake Report.

The Niagara Transit Commission wants to bring its OnDemand service in-house within the next two to three years, said Byford.

But that’s a long time for transit workers to go without any sort of job security, he said.

“The key is that they have some kind of security over the next few years till it is brought in-house,” said Byford.

The union said as part of the certification process, it submitted a list of 51 OnDemand workers to the Ontario Labour Relations Board last week.

Via countered with a list of 107 people, Byford said.

The point of this, he said, is so that Via can come back and say “that we didn’t do our due diligence and account for every driver.”

However, Byford said some of the people on Via’s list haven’t worked since 2020. Some have even been suspended.

He said Via is “union busting” and trying to inflate the numbers and convince previous workers to vote against forming a union.

Hawkins Pfister noted the labour board ruled all 107 drivers were eligible to vote as part of the certification process.

“Contrary to union assertions, these drivers are all independent contractors and were verified by the board as eligible,” she said.

“The union cannot cherry pick which drivers it considers to be eligible to be vote. Far from union busting, Via respects the rights of all drivers to exercise their vote and encouraged all eligible drivers to do so.”

If workers vote in favour of unionizing, then they will fall under the Amalgamation Transit Union, said Byford.

“Our end goal was to get the majority to vote yes and to start to represent them and get them a fair contract,” he said.

Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report