By C. Rockarts
In March, cities across Canada implemented fare-free public transit and back door boarding to encourage social distancing and curb the spread of COVID-19. On March 20, the City of Edmonton moved to temporarily suspend fare collection on all Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) buses, LRT and DATS services. Now, as many cities ‘relaunch’ their economies, municipalities are starting to bring fares back, leaving the workers that have relied on transit throughout the pandemic behind.
Fighting layoffs and privatization
Since the pandemic began in March, Edmonton transit workers have faced layoffs, redeployment and high levels of anxiety on the job. Scheduling has also undergone major changes; with schools no longer being in session, ridership has decreased drastically. The City of Edmonton has argued that the decrease in ridership has created less of a need for transit workers, laying off 300 transit workers in Edmonton. At least 3,800 transit workers have been laid off nationally.
There have been major workplace changes for transit operators since fares were made free in March. Changes in the protocols and frequency of cleaning, overcrowding, and safety issues between riders and operators.
The need for cleaning services has drastically increased, with many workers being redeployed to cleaning services for buses and transit centres. At the beginning of the pandemic, the City of Edmonton briefly contracted out cleaning services. ATU Local 569 organized and won Mayor Don Iveson and city councillors to agreeing to train laid off union members to do the cleaning work of private contractors.
Overcrowding has been another main issue for transit riders and operators. As of June 9, ridership on ETS was up approximately 50 percent from pre-COVID levels from its low of 28 percent since the pandemic began in March.
In a letter to City Council, Steve Bradshaw, President of ATU Local 569, expressed deep concern about increased ridership, stating, “The simple, obvious solution the Union sees to this problem is to ramp up service levels co-incident with the increase of ridership.”
Symptoms of poverty and homelessness
In the absence of a provincial housing strategy, zero-fare transit has also allowed many people facing homelessness to find shelter on buses and in transit stations. In Calgary, the municipality planned on housing people in hotels during the pandemic, but that plan was rejected by the province in April. Many who have used Edmonton’s Expo Centre drop-in space have stated that they were unable to access services like showers and laundry and didn’t feel safe utilizing the services.
Meanwhile, transit workers are expressing safety concerns regarding “non-destination” riders who become aggressive at the end of the line when they finish their routes. “Parts of the solution would work in a bigger picture of fare-free transit, where drivers could be made safe,” says Bradshaw. “If homelessness is the problem, let’s get busy and fix that while we’re at it. It can be done.”
Caitlin Hart, an organizer with Free Transit Edmonton, says systemic issues that already existed are only being more illuminated by the pandemic. “If homeless people are riding the bus just to have somewhere to stay, there are clear policy solutions that can fix these issues.”
Free Transit Edmonton is a local organization campaigning for free and accessible transit. The group believes that mobility is a universal right and public transit needs to be reliable, efficient, and accessible. It also believes ensuring safe working conditions for transit operators, but doesn’t believe that increased policing and criminalization of transit riders is the answer.
“We don’t think increasing fare enforcement is an effective strategy for supporting Edmontonians through COVID-19 – especially not for those seeking shelter from a situation that is outside of their control.”
Worker safety and fare-free transit
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, organizers have been asking questions regarding how to ensure transit worker safety and poverty can be addressed. One response has been Free Transit Edmonton’s “Fare Free Forever” campaign.
“We launched the campaign to call on Edmonton city council to keep public transit fare free and to connect with communities to make transit accessible for everyone”, says Hart. “Fare-free transit has the potential to address both social inequality and environmental sustainability. Making transit free to users offers a transformative solution for addressing systemic bias and racial and economic discrimination, isolation and lack of access to services.”
“The city could provide more funding for social services, have crisis responders who can arrange inner city transport, and improve access to social supports. These are just some potential solutions to this issue”, says Hart. “So many drivers face assaults because of fare disputes, so our campaign wants to focus on protecting transit workers while ensuring that vulnerable people are supported.”
ATU Canada has endorsed the movement for free transit and supports the move towards a fare-free system. In an interview with RankandFile.ca, Di Nino stated that making transit free is possible if governments are willing to invest in it.
“We need to be cautious of what fare-free transit is going to look like. We can’t call for it if governments are not willing, as part of a National Transit strategy, to invest money into the concept.”
In a national poll commissioned by ATU Canada, 91 percent of Canadians agree that governments have a responsibility to ensure that people everywhere can access safe, reliable and affordable transit.
“Governments have a responsibility to move to fare-free transit, and this is how we deal with mobility rights, climate change issues and so on,” says De Nino. “When we say affordable public transit, we also mean fare-free public transit.”
Local 569 president Steve Bradshaw is also in support of the concept.
“It’s an equity issue. Nobody expects you to pay for fire services or a library card – these are things that ought to be paid for out of the tax base. People ought to be able to transport themselves on our public transportation system. That’s our job as taxpayers and citizens; to provide for one another.”
“Federal Funding Now“
ATU Canada, the country’s largest transit union, has called on the federal government for $5 billion in emergency funding for transit, which is supported by 80 percent of people in the country. In addition, the union is also demanding the provincial government take action to protect workers during COVID-19.
“The fact that governments haven’t stepped up and recognized transit operators alongside many of the front-line workers is extremely concerning. We’ve seen that with the lack of concern for public transit across this nation in the failure to provide a stimulus package for public transit.“ says John Di Nino, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada (ATU).
The federal government has neglected public transit during the pandemic, all the while bailing out banks and large corporations, with special treatment being afforded to the oil and gas industry. The fact is that investment in public transit makes sense economically; for every dollar invested in public transit amounts to three dollars back into local economies.
Di Nino believes public transit systems need sustainable, long-term dedicated operational funding. The ‘Federal Funding Now’ campaign’s demands are the first step towards the broader goal of not only adequately funding service through the pandemic, but also ensuring jobs are protected for the long-term as part of a National Transit Strategy. Despite the ATU’s targeted demands, elected leaders have continued to pass the buck between all levels of government.
While Di Nino knows that Canada has been lucky in comparison to other countries’ number of coronavirus cases, he states, “there needs to be a recognition of the importance of transit in this country, and what those frontline workers actually do for our communities, putting themselves in harm’s way.”
Despite the fact that many are calling transit drivers heroes in this moment of crisis, employers and transit authorities have not recognized the value of transit operators, some of whom are moving COVID-19 patients into hospitals.
“How do you not recognize these workers as part of the overall fight against this pandemic?” asks Di Nino.
Transit, racism and policing
Since the eruption of protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, bus drivers in Minneapolis and NYC have refused to drive arrested protesters to police stations and holding cells. Minneapolis based ATU Local 1005 released a solidarity statement to the protestors, with drivers publicly refusing to transport protesters to jail. The ATU International Union and fellow transit workers have pledged that their members will not put themselves in danger by transporting arrested protesters for law enforcement services.
In a statement by ATU Canada, Di Nino makes clear links between the role of unions and the ongoing acts of police brutality and anti-black racism, stating: “As transit workers, we know that transit is a space plagued by racism. We’ve seen the mounting evidence of anti-black racism in fare evasion ticketing, in exclusive transit planning that doesn’t service marginalized communities, and in the way that people of colour in Canada are disproportionately impacted by exposure to COVID-19 on public transit. We know that public transit can be a site of injustice and we fight for more equitable outcomes.”
Last week in Edmonton, over 15,000 attended the Fight for Equity protest, organized by community members with support from the Black Lives Matter Edmonton chapter. While it was a peaceful protest, if asked if Bradshaw would ever transport protestors to jail he commented: “Fortunately we haven’t had to deal with that problem here, but I would be diametrically opposed to using our members and our union to transport protesters. That sure the hell is not the purpose of public transportation”.
Making the system fare-free would result in millions in savings from abolishing fare enforcement, which fails to recover a small percentage of money compared to both the financial and human cost of enforcing fares. In a petition signed by over 10,000 people in Edmonton, the local Black Lives Matter chapter is demanding that the City of Edmonton never vote to increase the EPS budget, repeal the $75 million dollar budget increase promised to EPS in 2019, and directly reinvest this money into affordable housing, mental health programming, reinvest in community-led organizations, and make public transit free.
According to Edmonton-based researcher Bashir Mohamed, 70 percent of Transit Peace officers’ time is spent on fare evasion. In 2019, Edmonton journalist Moira Wyton released a damning report that showed Indigenous people in the city are ticketed 7 times more than other riders and make up 43.8 percent of fare evasion tickets. Making up only 4.5 percent of Edmonton’s population, Black riders receive 7 percent of Edmonton’s fare evasion tickets. Mohamed advocates for the elimination of Transit Peace officers as necessary to prevent systemic discrimination and use of force on Black, Indigenous and racialized riders.