Cassie Theaker says she lives paycheque to paycheque in a difficult job, and it takes a certain kind of “amazing” person to be a Hamilton bus driver.
“They’re the only ones who make it here because of the integrity it takes to do this job,” she said of her colleagues. “I make it work, but I barely make it work.”
Theaker and fellow members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107 went on strike Thursday after voting down the city’s latest contract offer. They rallied at the downtown Frank A. Cooke Transit Terminal before marching to city hall alongside supporters from other unions.
“I push myself for my 7½-hour trip,” Theaker told the crowd of co-workers and supporters, holding her daughter in her arms.
Theaker also posted about her job on Facebook, writing she has “hugged drivers in some of their most vulnerable times after an accident, an assault or a verbal altercation.”
Still, she said, “I don’t have any money in my bank account after my two-week paycheque.”
Thursday’s walkout was the first strike by city transit workers in 25 years, ATU Local 107 president Eric Tuck told CBC Hamilton.
“Our members are getting priced out of the very community we’ve been serving for 125 years,” Tuck said at the rally, noting while housing costs have significantly increased, “our wages have not.”
Tuck said other issues also matter to members, including working conditions. Members have, and continue to, fight for washroom breaks, he said.
Theaker said: “When I have to hold my bladder for an hour and a half to get from one side of the city to the other with a seatbelt on my waist, it’s very challenging.”
Ninety-four per cent of union members rejected the city’s last offer, ATU said in a news release, adding the offer “does not keep up with current inflationary pressures and the cost of living.”
In August, 99 per cent of members voted for a strike mandate.
ATU said they are ready to go back to the bargaining table “if the HSR is prepared to table a better offer.”
City says final offer ‘will not change’
While workers stood outside city hall chanting the mayor’s name, city leaders told a news conference they won’t budge.
Lora Fontana, executive director of human resources at the city, told reporters their final offer was “fair, reasonable and it will not change.”
Fontana said the majority of the negotiations have been around wages, and the city considers the breaks issue as “addressed and resolved.”
The city has said it offered a 3.75 per cent increase retroactive to January 2023, and three per cent increases in 2024, 2025 and 2026.
Workers are asking for the same wage increase, of up to 15 per cent, that non-unionized city staff received in the summer.
“If this city has money for [non-union workers], … they better have money for the front-line workers,” Tuck said. “We’re not about to become the working poor.”
The city has said those increases were offered after a labour market study found those non-union workers were underpaid. ATU members, they say, are paid well in comparison to nearby municipalities.
Fontana noted the city is “at the table” with six other unions and said this round of bargaining will have an impact on other negotiations.
Tuck said the average transit worker earns about $72,000 and it’s “pretty rich” hearing Fontana, who earns more than $200,000 per year, tell them what’s fair.
Mayor Andrea Horwath said offering ATU anything else would cause “significant, financial hardship” to the city.
She said if all unionized city workers got the wage increase HSR is asking for, there would be a $113-million budget pressure, which would have to be paid for through taxes and/or increased transit rates.
“People know I respect the bargaining process … we’re committed to an agreement that is fair amongst all of the workers of the city and we’re hoping to have the union come back to the table at any time,” Horwath said.
“We’re trying to be fair to everyone … 12.75 per cent is the fair and equitable solution we managed to negotiate with the CUPE workers. Twenty-three per cent is just not doable.”
It’s unclear what financial impact the strike is having on Hamilton. Horwath said the city is looking into it.
She commended HSR workers for helping the city and said she respects their right to strike.
Grey Cup shuttle questioned
Downtown resident and HSR rider Debra O’Neil came to the ATU rally in solidarity with the strikers.
“I wanna support the drivers because they’re not getting enough pay,” O’Neil said, adding everyone is feeling the cost of inflation.
O’Neil hopes the union and city can reach a deal soon, noting Hamilton will be abuzz with Grey Cup activity next weekend.
Horwath said the union may be using the upcoming CFL Grey Cup game as leverage in the strike.
Metrolinx is offering free shuttles to veterans for Remembrance Day and free shuttles from West Harbour GO Station to the Grey Cup, which Horwath said the city had nothing to do with.
Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, spoke at the ATU rally, commending transit operators for their work during the early part of the pandemic when many others worked remotely.
People cheered and shouted “shame” when she called out the Metrolinx Grey Cup shuttle.
“We’re going to block that,” she said. “There are not going to be people in the stands … on a bus that is not driven by ATU members.”
Metrolinx told CBC Hamilton the game day shuttle on Nov. 19, being run between West Harbour GO station and Tim Hortons Field, was organized by the Grey Cup Festival team.
DARTS accessible transit service still running
Hamilton resident Theresa Thomas said she uses transit to get around several times a day. Thomas, who is retired and lives near Gage Park, said she loves “the culture” drivers have created, and she always feels safe and supported on the bus.
“They do an exceptional job,” she said. “I support them. They are the transit [system].”
With buses parked, acting city manager Carlyle Khan said the city is working to make bike share and e-scooters more accessible.
Khan said the city is exploring solutions for people outside of the lower city.
He added they’re connecting with school boards about their contingency plans, and making parking more available in city lots and GO stations. Khan also encouraged workplaces to accommodate work from home where possible.
The city is posting updates about the strike on its website, where it says the work stoppage won’t affect the DARTS accessible transit service. The service offers shared rides for people with disabilities and must be booked in advance.
In an email, Nancy Purser, Hamilton’s manager of transit support services told CBC Hamilton HSR sees an average of 65,000 rides per day. That’s not 65,000 individual riders, since it counts people taking multiple trips. “In 2019, HSR carried 21.6 million customers, before the pandemic. During 2022, HSR carried 15.2 million riders and by September of 2023, HSR had already carried 14.2 million riders,” Purser wrote.
Many of those riders are Hamiltonians transferring to other transit services to commute within the GTA. On Wednesday, a Metrolinx spokesperson told CBC Hamilton that local GO stations will remain open, “but there may be delays in and out of some stations, and some pickup and drop-off locations for buses may change.”
They say riders should allow themselves extra time and check the GO website for updates.
Burlington Transit said it is relocating stops along Route 1, which it shares with HSR, until the strike ends.
On Tuesday, ATU Canada president John Di Nino said his union wants to remind riders that striking is a difficult choice for workers, saying they want to serve riders.
“Ultimately, it is the employer’s irresponsibility that will leave riders stranded.”
ATU 107 said Wednesday members will offer veterans transportation to attend Remembrance Day services during the strike.