Winnipeg Bus Drivers Go on One-Day Fare Strike

Winnipeg bus drivers waged a "fare strike" on May 14 to highlight issues of chronic underfunding, infrequent service, workplace safety, and unfair fare hikes. ATU Local 1505 has been without a contract since January. Photo: ATU Local 1505, cropped from original.

Originally published at rankandfile.ca.

On Tuesday, May 14, the majority of Winnipeg Transit drivers, members of Transit (ATU) Local 1505, did not enforce payment from transit riders. This “fare strike” is the first time the ATU has done this type of action in North America.

“Well, our members are tired and they wanted some action,” ATU Local 1505 President Aleem Chaudhary told RankandFile.ca. “They feel they are not respected because some of the big concerns we do have as a union and our members have, unfortunately they are not being taken seriously.”

The union has been without contract since January, with 98 percent of members rejecting the city of Winnipeg’s most recent offer. ATU says the city is not addressing issues of chronic underfunding and infrequent service, workplace safety, and unfair fare hikes for riders.

But instead of taking a disruptive action that might inconvenience riders, the union aimed to make their 170,000 daily riders allies, drawing attention to the fact that both Winnipeg transit drivers and riders want frequent, affordable and accessible public transit.

While drivers could not tell riders that transit was “free," they could choose to say nothing if a rider walked on without paying. Chaudhary says this approach made the action completely legal.

The day before, the union publicized the fare strike to the public through leafletting bus stops, on social media, and through the local news.

While similar actions have been done by transit operators in Canada and the U.S, the Winnipeg fare strike was unique in that it was officially organized and sanctioned by the union, and was done in place of shutting down transit. Vancouver transit operators shut down transit with pickets in 2001, but followed with a fare strike when the labor board deemed the pickets illegal. Unsanctioned fare strikes have been organized by rank-and-file members in New York and Montreal.

Chaudhary is proud of how the action turned out.

“I think overall it went very well, I’m very happy with it, the results are great, our membership loved it.”

Management felt differently. Winnipeg Transit director Greg Ewankiw sent the union a letter asking them to stop the action, claiming it could cause “unruly passenger behaviour.” While harassment and assault from passengers has been an ongoing concern for the union, the primary causes of conflict are over fare disputes. Drivers not enforcing fares actually reduces their chances of experiencing violence, contrary to Ewankiw’s claims.

“They were quite upset over it because I think it took them by surprise,” Chaudhary explains. “I think they thought we would walk the picket line or stop the busses for a day or whatever. We didn’t go the conventional route, so we chose this, and we took them by surprise and they don’t like surprises.”

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The city is now taking the union to the labour board, citing the action as an “unfair labour practice.” Chaudhary thinks the city should focus on getting back to the table and hammering out a fair deal.

“I can tell you right now, their complaint against the labour board is going to cost money, taxpayer money, and it’s being wasted because we are 100% in our right to do what we did…It’s just ridiculous, as far as I’m concerned.”

According to the union, about 80 percent of drivers participated in the job action. Comments on the Winnipeg reddit forum indicate this may have caused confusion for some riders. One commenter claiming to be a bus driver said management threatened to punish drivers who participated.

Despite this, the action has sparked a wider conversation among Winnipeg Transit riders about the larger issues facing transit, and demonstrated a unique method of fighting back.

The fare strike coincided with the national ATU Canada Conference, with ATU members from across Canada convening in Winnipeg from May 14 to 16 at the Fort Garry Hotel. Many ATU members participated in Monday’s leafletting.

ATU Canada President John DeNino spoke at the conference about the union’s new National Transit Strategy, which positions public transit as a matter of human rights, energy and environmental justice, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. He says actions like ATU 1505’s will be necessary for building the union’s strength.

“For transit professionals, it is our labour that moves this country. We move 162 million rides a month in this country. Yesterday, our brothers and sisters in Winnipeg were in solidarity with riders in this great city. We wanted to send a message that the status quo of riders in this city is not working for transit professionals. ATU 1505 did not enforce the fare and told riders to keep the money in their pocket. No union has done this in North America except for the ATU.”

Chaudhary feels the action went smoothly and was well received by the public. He says he has received calls and emails from riders asking how they can support and get involved.

“It’s been positive, I haven’t had any real complaints, honestly, especially from the public. It’s been good.”

Emily Leedham is an editor at rankandfile.ca.

ATU International President Larry Hanley, who pushed for the union to ally itself with riders and environmental groups, passed away on May 7. Labor Notes has published several pieces on his legacy:

Rest in Power, Larry Hanley
Larry Hanley, A Union Force of Nature
Commuters and Bus Drivers Unite: Larry Hanley's Staten Island Campaign