TTC union leader warns workers are 'ready' to strike Friday

Government source says province won't consider back-to-work legislation without request from city

The head of the union representing thousands of Toronto transit workers said they're prepared to strike Friday, saying the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) isn't meeting its demands at the bargaining table.

The TTC and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 have until midnight to broker a new deal and avoid a strike, which would disrupt travel plans for commuters both in and outside of Toronto. The transit system averages 1.3 million riders per weekday, according to the May data posted in the CEO's report.

In a news conference Thursday morning, ATU Local 113 president Marvin Alfred said anything it's achieved during talks "has strings attached and is not authentic." He pointed to little progress in wages, pensions and, most importantly, job security amidst a rise in agency contracts.

"We will be walking out at midnight," said Alfred. "We are ready to fight and we won't back down."

"You want to avert a strike? Then do something about it."

Despite the midnight deadline, the union and the TTC have said buses and streetcars will finish service around 2 a.m. Friday. Meanwhile, subway service will wind down between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. City officials have urged people to come up with a backup plan for getting around on Friday and beyond.

Wheel-Trans service for people with disabilities will continue to operate, both sides have confirmed.

ATU Local 113 represents about three quarters of the more than 16,000 staff at the transit agency. Union representatives have said other worker demands include benefits and better working conditions and workplace safety measures amid "record levels" of violence on buses and subways last year.

Different unions and advocates appeared at the news conference in support of ATU Local 113. Laura Walton, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents over a million workers in the province, said it's in support of the workers doing what they need to do to "ensure jobs remain" with the union.

"When workers win, we all win," she said.

"The TTC belongs to the people of Toronto, and that we all need to remember."

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, the executive director of advocacy group TTCriders, said traffic will "grind to a halt" on Friday if there's a strike, making it hard for people to get to their jobs or health appointments.

"It is so outrageous that a deal has not been reached," she said.

While transit workers are "going to be blamed" if there's a strike, she said the real problem is decades of underfunding the transit system.

"This is about protecting TTC service and accountability for riders," she said.

Marvin Alfred, head of the main union representing Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) workers, said Thursday that a strike is imminent unless the TTC steps up in contract talks. (Alex Lupul/CBC)
Marvin Alfred, head of the main union representing Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) workers, said Thursday that a strike is imminent unless the TTC steps up in contract talks. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the TTC said bargaining continues.

Despite the union saying there hasn't been meaningful progress during negotiations, the transit agency said ATU Local 113 employees are an "integral part" of its operations, and that it values the work its employees do. TTC spokesperson Stuart Green previously said a deal is possible as long as the parties remain at the bargaining table.

"We remain optimistic that with talks progressing well, we can reach a fair deal that avoids service interruptions and inconvenience for our customers," it said.

The contract talks comes at a moment when the City of Toronto's finances are strained.

A recent city report shows the city needs to find billions over the next decade to maintain its assets, which include the transit system and other public services. Mayor Olivia Chow said Thursday she's hoping a "give and take" spirit from both sides leads to a deal.

The union's collective agreement expired on March 31.

If a new deal isn't reached, the strike would be the first labour disruption by TTC workers since 2008. For years it had been declared an essential service, but that decision was quashed by Ontario's top court, which upheld the workers' right to strike last month.

An Ontario government source, who wasn't authorized to speak on the subject, told CBC News Thursday the province won't use the notwithstanding clause to force people back to work and will wait for a formal request from the City of Toronto before considering legislation.

Given the court's recent decision, the source said the province would have to meet a high legal threshold over a period of weeks to prove the strike harmed the economy and the public's safety to avoid getting it struck down.

The legislature rose for the summer on Thursday and isn't scheduled to be back until October.

"Don't expect us to be back next week," the source said, adding the province would probably wait weeks before introducing legislation.

Earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford didn't confirm if his government would force workers back. Despite this, he said he believes the TTC is an essential service and is hoping they don't strike, adding he isn't in favour of "anything that hurts the public."

Alfred said the possibility of the province legislating them back to work won't stop the union from striking.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, but that's not going to dissuade us from doing the right thing ... if there's a fight coming, we'll be ready."