After the talks will there be action?

By PAT WATSON

A person can learn a lot by being open to solving problems through shared communication. Like, the reason some Toronto Transit Commission drivers are reluctant to take some people’s transfers is that TTC staff are concerned about the transfer of germs from one person to another. It seems some passengers have taken to carrying their transfers in their mouths, and drivers who encounter a host of Toronto transit users on a daily basis are loath to contract whatever contagion of the day is out there in this post-SARS era.

We understand.

This concern and more have been gleaned from the three town halls hosted by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 headed by Bob Kinnear. After holding one in northwest Toronto and another in Scarborough in April, the final town hall took place downtown last Sunday at Ryerson University. According to one TTC worker who volunteered to help out at the meetings, this one which was attended by some 200 people including TTC staff, had the largest turnout of public participants.

We have learned through these town halls that many of the concerns of transit users have to do not just with surly frontline staff, but also with issues that are beyond the purview of the union, for example, the recent decision by the provincial Liberal government to cut 50 per cent of the funding for Metrolinx. We learned that the problem of bunching up of buses and streetcars and the long waits are not the responsibility of drivers but supervisors. And we have learned that drivers and the union have no say in the types of vehicles that the TTC puts on the roads; drivers are not consulted, Kinnear has said.

Customer service training is also not the job of the union.

Finally, aging vehicles have not been replaced. The resulting shortage is one reason for overcrowding.

One irony of the meetings – and there have been so many – is that the TTC drivers who agreed to speak with transit users and other concerned Torontonians are really model workers. Twenty-year veteran, Eddie Braga, even brought visual aids – a pair of his son’s toy streetcars – to explain why buses and streetcars make those annoying short turns all the time.

The ones who bring their poor customer service attitudes with them to work on a regular basis were not the ones answering the concerns of passengers at the town hall, and there were some agitated voices at this event.

Kinnear, who weeks earlier came out swinging in his initial reaction to a troublesome public relations breakdown between frontline workers and transit users, has maintained a sincere effort to calm the storm of criticism and hostility, repeatedly promising on behalf of the union’s 8,000 members to do better.

Yet, it was the front page publication of a napping ticket taker, which also went ‘viral’ on the Internet, followed by other photographic evidence of what TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster described as “a culture of unacceptable operating discipline … complacency and malaise” by frontline workers that really precipitated this customer-and-service-provider confab. One wonders whether any of the growing customer discontent would have been taken seriously otherwise.

Now, Kinnear is talking up an alliance between transit users and the union aimed at putting pressure on provincial politicians to increase funding and return Toronto’s public transit system to its former position as the best in North America. Kinnear traces the beginning of the decline in service to the funding cuts by the Mike Harris government in 1995, which left the burden of operating costs in the pockets of transit users to the tune of 70 per cent of funding.

But even as the union head and caring staffers are doing their best to improve public relations, those of us who use the service every day know that infractions continue. On the way to the town hall by TTC – which is how more than 60 per cent of those who attended the meeting got there – yet another streetcar driver decided to park the vehicle he was in charge off just short of the proper station position, not because it accommodated any passengers but because it made it a little easier for him to get to his coffee-break at the nearby McDonald’s.

This problem is not going away overnight.

A note on Mother’s Day…

This coming Mother’s Day Sunday, all some mothers really want is for you to clean your room without having to be told to do so. In other words, a day where they don’t feel they have to nag.

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