September 2014

WheelTrans taxi drivers win contract dispute with TTC

by Mike Beggs

The strike by TTC WheelTrans-contracted accessible taxi drivers is over.

At the Toronto Transit Commission Board meeting on August 19, members voted by a narrow 4-3 margin to give drivers back the HST (of 13 cents per kilometer), which had been removed in a new five-year contract, commencing July 5. But not without some fireworks.

The new contract totals 7 million service kms. between four brokerages (Scarboro City Taxi, Co-Op Cabs, Royal Taxi, and Checker Taxi). A Staff report estimated that the HST removal would slash $2.1 million from the TTC budget, in the first year of the contract.

Many drivers refused to service WheelTrans calls under these terms -- a 30 percent pay cut, which left them earning less than minimum wage for a demanding 12 hour shift (where tight WheelTrans scheduling allows little or no time for lunch, or even breaks).

Last month, TTC spokesperson Brad Ross stressed that the Commission went through a public Request For Proposal process for the new contract, and suggested that the $2.50 per km. rate offered adequate compensation for drivers, and that the brokerages were free to top up drivers’ pay beyond the minimum. But in a July 23 letter to the TTC, Royal Taxi GM Spiros Bastas noted that the TTC was a signatory to the contract, and had, “a significant role to play in finding a solution.”

A meeting was held on July 27 between the TTC Staff, and the Accessible Transportation Association of Ontario (representing the four brokerages), with the ATAO suggesting, “If the matter was not resolved by the August 19 Board meeting, the taxi drivers may withdraw their services again.” Drivers reportedly returned to work after the July 27 meeting.

But on August 19, Committee Room B at city hall was reportedly jammed with drivers who made deputations, and cheered and applauded the Board’s decision.

“A lot of drivers were down at the meeting. Drivers are happy,” says Woosen Million, a Scarboro City driver, who sits on Toronto’s Taxicab Advisory Committee.

“It has taken a long time to resolve this issue.”

With the price of gas alone skyrocketing from 78 cents to $1.35 per litre over the past year, he asks, “How can we pay from our pockets? We don’t have much money. Yet, the City wanted us to subsidize the people with special needs.”

Veteran “W” driver John Chan deemed it good news, and said all drivers are now back on the job.

“It’s hard work. You have this non-stop, 12 hour shift,” he says. “They’ve got to make it worth our while, or the guys will be out of the business.”

After the decision, Scarboro City vice president Gurjeet Dhillon was okay with the HST being given back to the drivers and not to the brokerages.

“We just wanted to make sure the right thing was done for the drivers. We’re hoping to move on and provide this service,” she comments. “We do know the drivers have (heavy) expenses, and the hard work they put in on the front lines.”

The TTC’s only comment after the decision was that, “TTC staff were given directions by the Board on this matter, and staff will of course, implement the change.”

The fireworks started when Ward 16 Councillor Karen Stintz moved a Staff report recommending the contract be left as is, meeting with some strong opposition. Ward 38 Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker’s counter motion ultimately passed by that 4-3 margin, after what he termed, “a very ugly, ideological fight”, culminating with Stintz storming out of the room.

De Baeremaeker says he was “shocked” when she came forward with this motion, and “disappointed by the “survival of the fittest” philosophy being put forth by several Councillors, basically telling drivers to look for another job if they don’t like this one.

“I have to say, what we saw at TTC was very ugly,” he tells Taxi News. “It was barbaric capitalism at its worst.”

“When you have drivers who work so hard to make a decent living, how can you complain about paying them the 13 cents per km. you owe them? It’s a very demanding job, and we have a group of drivers who give us amazing customer service.”

De Baeremaeker suggests it was industry deputations which swayed the vote.

“If it wasn’t for their group’s interests in the room, these people would have lost everything,” he adds. “It would have been an absolute disaster. And the TTC would have had to clean up the mess.”

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