By PAT WATSON
Anyone who uses Toronto’s public transit system knows that most of the Toronto Transit Commission’s frontline workers are doing a creditable job despite the beating the TTC has been taking in recent months. But, rather than take seriously the overall decline in customer service, as evidenced by the more than 30,000 complaints tallied by the Commission last year, some TTC personnel have decided to attack the bad behaviour of some transit users. In today’s technologically enhanced world, that means setting up a Facebook account to document the infractions of the transit using public. This comes after widely circulated phone camera videos of a TTC worker recorded sleeping on the job and another who took a 3 a.m. seven-minute coffee and washroom break while also on the job. Is this ad hominem strategy by TTC workers to be considered a prudent response aimed at solving the poor customer service attitude of some of their co- workers?
Furthermore, if Toronto Transit Commission union president Bob Kinnear wanted to create empathy for TTC workers within the commuting public he did not chose the optimal speech to achieve that at a news conference on Tuesday morning, held to address the problem. Understandably, as union head he had to be seen to be representing his workers, but while he speaks for 12,000 TTC workers, he was speaking to hundreds of thousands of commuters who have to put up with a company whose internal culture is in decline.
At the news conference, Kinnear came out swinging, demanding that the public stop “harassing” TTC workers “stop spitting on them (and) stop calling them lazy and overpaid.”
For a time one had to wonder where his speech was heading since he spent much time belabouring the point that workers have the right to take a washroom break.
Then, the union president went on to attack TTC management, in particular Chief General Manager Gary Webster and spokesperson Brad Ross. All of this was plainly formulaic since it is the job of union leadership to at least publicly – and for the sake of retaining their leadership – point the finger at management.
But Kinnear also pointed the finger at the public. The public, he said, should be more understanding.
After he blew off steam, he conceded: “The union is not disputing that there are some workers who are less than perfect.” His solution? He offered up that TTC workers were going to take action to bring about change. But what is the concrete plan for repairing customer relationship? Town hall meetings… but not right away.
Although the TTC union head and workers are part of a public service it appears that they are frustratingly out of touch with transit users, for there did not seem to be a specific or singular statement of apology in any part of the union head’s speech. One gets the sense that TTC workers see themselves as victims, as opposed to being responsible for their own failing attitude.
As has been stated in this column before, the problems of the TTC, once an award-winning transit service, stem in no small part from the change in the funding brought about during the 1990s “Common Sense Revolution” when the Harris government cut provincial funding for operations at the TTC laying 70 per cent of operating costs on the commuting public.
What is clear though is that the problem with the TTC is not just the tension on the frontline between drivers, ticket takers and commuters. Could there be a relationship issue between workers and management that is filtering out to the frontline? Reading between the lines of Kinnear’s speech one could draw such a conclusion. The kind of internal memo sent to workers by CGM Webster in which he stated that he was “tired of defending the TTC” may also be a clue.
Important to our community is a related problem that has not entered the mainstream debate so far in all the mess that is TTC customer service. This issue, which has landed on the desk at Share repeatedly over the years, is the specific discrimination faced by transit users who are Black. Given this mess, is it any wonder that there is an increase in the number of cars on the road as people seek a better way?
A note on Black Winter Olympic athletes…
Watch for African American speed skater Shani Davis at the Vancouver Olympics. Davis won gold (1000m) and silver (1500m) in the 2006 Winter Olympics. And, alpine skier Kwame Nkrumah- Acheampong, also known as the Snow Leopard, is Ghana’s first athlete to compete in the Winter Olympic Games.