Cassie Theaker says she lives paycheck to paycheck in a tough job, and it takes a certain type 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,” he said of his colleagues. “I make it work, but I barely make it work.”
Theaker and his colleagues from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107 went on strike Thursday after rejecting the city’s latest contract offer. They demonstrated at the Frank A. Cooke Transit Terminal downtown before marching to City Hall along with supporters of other unions.
“I’m pushing myself for my seven-and-a-half-hour commute,” Theaker told the crowd of co-workers and supporters, holding her daughter in her arms.
Theaker also posted about his work on Facebook, writing that he “embraced drivers in some of their most vulnerable moments after an accident, assault or verbal altercation.”
Still, he said, “I have no money in my bank account after my two-week paycheck.”
Thursday’s strike was the first by the city’s transportation workers in 25 years, ATU Local 107 president Eric Tuck told CBC Hamilton.
“Our members are being excluded from the same community we have served for 125 years,” Tuck said at the rally, noting that while housing costs have increased significantly, “our wages have not.”
Tuck said other issues are also important to members, including working conditions. Members have fought and continue to fight for bathroom breaks, he said.
Theaker said: “When I have to hold my bladder for an hour and a half to go from one side of the city to the other with a seat belt around my waist, it’s a big challenge.”
Ninety-four percent of union members rejected the city’s latest offer, ATU said in a news release, adding that the offer “does not keep up with current inflationary pressures and the cost of living.”
In August, 99 percent of members voted in favor of a strike mandate.
ATU said they are willing to return to the negotiating table “if the HSR is willing to submit a better offer.”
City says final offer “won’t change”
As workers stood outside City Hall chanting the mayor’s name, city leaders said at a news conference that they will not give in.
Lora Fontana, the city’s executive director of human resources, told reporters that its final offer was “fair, reasonable and will not change.”
Fontana said most of the negotiations have revolved around salaries and the city considers the break issue “addressed and resolved.”
He the city has said It offered a 3.75 percent increase retroactive to January 2023, and three percent increases in 2024, 2025 and 2026.
Workers are asking for the same pay increase, of up to 15 percent, that non-union city staff received in the summer.
“If this city has money to [non-union workers]…they better have money for frontline workers,” Tuck said. “We’re not going to become the working poor.”
He the city has said Those raises were offered after a labor market study found that non-union workers were underpaid. ATU members, they say, receive good salaries compared to nearby municipalities.
Fontana noted that the city is “at the table” with six other unions and said this round of negotiations will impact other negotiations.
Tuck said the average transportation worker makes about $72,000 and it’s “pretty rich” to hear Fontana, who makes more than $200,000 a year, tell them what’s fair.
Mayor Andrea Horwath said offering ATU anything else would cause “significant financial hardship” for the city.
He said if all unionized city workers got the pay increase HSR is asking for, there would be a budget strain of $113 million, which would have to be paid for through taxes and/or increased transportation rates.
“People know that I respect the bargaining process…we are committed to an agreement that is fair among all city workers and we expect the union to come back to the table at any time,” Horwath said.
“We’re trying to be fair to everyone… 12.75 percent is the fair and equitable solution we came up with.” negotiate with CUPE workers. “Twenty-three percent is simply not feasible.”
It is unclear what financial impact the strike is having on Hamilton. Horwath said the city is looking into it.
He congratulated HSR workers for helping the city and said he respects their right to strike.
Gray Cup shuttle questioned
Debra O’Neil, a downtown resident and HSR rider, attended the ATU rally in solidarity with the strikers.
“I want to support drivers because they don’t get paid enough,” O’Neil said, adding that everyone is feeling the cost of inflation.
O’Neil hopes the union and city can reach an agreement soon, noting that Hamilton will be busy in the Gray Cup next weekend.
Horwath said the union could be using the upcoming CFL Gray Cup game as leverage in the strike.
Metrolinx is offering free transportation to veterans for Remembrance Day and free transportation from the West Harbor GO Station to the Gray 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 and praised transportation operators for their work during the early part of the pandemic, when many others were working remotely.
People cheered and shouted “shame” when he called the Metrolinx Gray Cup shuttle.
“We’re going to block that,” he said. “There will be no people in the stands…on a bus that is not driven by ATU members.”
Metrolinx told CBC Hamilton that game day transportation on Nov. 19, which will run between the West Harbor GO station and Tim Hortons Field, was organized by the Gray Cup Festival team.
DARTS accessible transit service continues to operate
Hamilton resident Theresa Thomas said she uses public transportation to get around several times a day. Thomas, who is retired and lives near Gage Park, said she loves “the culture” the drivers have created and that she always feels safe and supported on the bus.
“They do an exceptional job,” he said. “I support them. They are the transit [system]”.
With the buses parked, Interim City Manager Carlyle Khan said the city is working to make bike sharing and electric scooters more accessible.
Khan said the city is exploring solutions for people outside the lower city.
He added that they are communicating with school boards about their contingency plans and making more parking available in city lots and at GO stations. Khan also encouraged workplaces to include working from home wherever possible.
The city is releasing updates on the strike. on your website, where it says that the work stoppage will not affect 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 transit support services manager, told CBC that Hamilton HSR sees an average of 65,000 trips per day. That’s not 65,000 individual passengers, since it counts people making multiple trips. “In 2019, HSR transported 21.6 million customers, before the pandemic. During 2022, HSR transported 15.2 million passengers and in September 2023, HSR had already transported 14.2 million passengers,” Purser wrote.
Many of those passengers are Hamiltonians who transfer to other transit services to travel 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 bus pick-up and drop-off locations may change.”
They say cyclists should give themselves extra time and check the GO to website for updates.
Burlington Transit said it is relocating stops along Route 1which it shares with HSR, until the strike ends.
On Tuesday, ATU Canada president John Di Nino said his union wants to remind passengers that the strike is a difficult decision for workers, saying they want to serve passengers.
“Ultimately, it is employer irresponsibility that will leave passengers stranded.”
ATU 107 said Wednesday that members will offer transportation to veterans to attend Remembrance Day services during the strike.