The negotiations between the City of Hamilton and its public transit operators represented by the Amalgamated Transit Unit Local 107 remain stalled – a stalemate.

There is no substantive movement in the negotiations – bus drivers have been without a contract since the beginning of 2011 – as neither side is able to force the hand of the other.

According to the union, the city is offering a four-year contract with a two year wage freeze and two years of one per cent increases thereafter.

Strike vote Sunday does not mean imminent strike

The union is conducting a strike vote on Sunday, January 15. The Union hopes a strike mandate will give it additional strength at the negotiating table.

A strike is not imminent. It is being discussed by some drivers, other drivers remember the last HSR strike during the winter of 1997/98 that lasted 90 days during a tough winter and ended in victory for the Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth.

The shock and memory of the 90-day strike during the 1997/8 winter

The regional municipality, lead by Regional Chair Terry Cooke, shocked many observers by allowing for a protracted winter strike and holding steady for three months in their position until City of Hamilton Alderman and the Mayor reacted to a public outcry. Even then, the concessions given to the union were small and the costs recovered from regional savings resulting from the strike.

The ATU assumed, from past experience, a strike would only last two weeks before the regional municipality would grant concessions and a settlement reached. The region saw the negotiations with the ATU as a proxy battle with the much larger CUPE local representing other regional workers.

The ATU contract was first to expire and the region took a hard stand against the ATU knowing that a bus strike would have less political consequence than a strike by regional workers closing numerous municipal services.

The region felt it couldn’t give an inch to the ATU if it wanted to hold the line in talks to follow with CUPE.

After winning the 90 day strike, the region took its strengthened position to the table against CUPE and achieved their goals in those negotiations as well.

It took years for some HSR bus drivers to recover from losing wages during the strike. The memories of the hardship of a long strike stuck with HSR operators for many years. It is one of the reasons HSR drivers have worked the past year without a contract and avoided a strike vote until this time.

Why a strike vote now?

Having spoke with many members of the union this past week; they are frustrated. There is an uncertainty to working without a contract and they are watching as senior bureaucrats at City Hall – especially those on the sunshine list making more than $100,000 – continue to see significant pay increases while they – the workers – are expected to accept a pay freeze.

The recent decision of Mayor Bratina to raise the salary of his chief of staff is often cited as an example of the disconnect between the top ranks of City Hall and the front-line worker.

There are union members who believe Council will quickly act to end a February strike, but worry about a “mild winter” resulting in a longer strike. If the union doesn’t receive a strike mandate Sunday, these members worry they’ll be working without a contract for another year.

One of the goals of  strike vote is to draw public attention to the negotiations and place pressure on City Council to reach a settlement before a strike becomes a serious possibility.

How far are the City and Union apart?

Both negotiating teams are maintaining a media blackout on the negotiations themselves. The union has briefed it’s members and the message from the union to its membership is that 0-0-1-1 is acceptable if the City gives bus drivers the same benefit package as CUPE members.

The CUPE package is more generous than the ATU package.

Senior city negotiators and staff briefed City Council behind closed doors this morning. It is unknown what the briefing contained. What is known is that no decisions were made by Council during the in-camera session.

What’s next? Should I be arranging alternative transit?

The negotiations are now being assisted by a conciliator. The earliest possible date for a strike is the second week of February as the union would need to seek a No Board report from the conciliator and the Minister of Labour must issue the “No Board” letter. This can only happen after at least one negotiating session following the strike vote. Once the letter is issued, a 17 day period must pass before a strike can begin.

There is no reason to expect or prepare for a strike at this time.

A request for comment was sent to the City. I’ll update with a statement as soon as it is received

The City of Hamilton issued the following statement on January 11th:

[quote_box author=”Kelly Anderson, ” profession=”Public Affairs Coordinator, Public Works Department, City of Hamilton “]
The City of Hamilton is currently in negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents HSR bus operators, mechanics and other transit workers. The Disabled and Aged Regional Transportation System (DARTS), the accessible transit service provider for the City, is not part of ATU.

The City remains hopeful that a negotiated settlement can be reached at the bargaining table.

Regular updates will be provided as negotiations continue and details about service impacts will be communicated extensively before a potential labour disruption occurs.
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