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ATU fights to Keep Transit Public in Ontario

ATU Locals across Ontario are fighting together to “Keep Transit Public.” The Ontario provincial government, currently led by the Liberal Party, is spending billions of dollars on transit infrastructure and service expansions under its regional transit agency, Metrolinx. 

Unfortunately, many of these service expansions are being delivered through public-private partnerships, or P3s, which use private companies to Finance, Design, Build, Operate, and Maintain (FDBOM) new transit. Metrolinx’s P3 model excludes public transit agencies from these new projects, turning integral pieces of transit systems over to private companies.

Public-private partnerships allow governments to appear to invest in infrastructure and services without increasing their debt load. In fact, total costs are often higher, but P3s create the illusion of savings by stretching-out costs over a longer period.

True costs hidden

Governments use P3s so they can claim balanced budgets ahead of elections, with the true costs hidden until those in power are long retired from public office. Companies are eager to engage in P3s to make money on public projects because they are guaranteed a return on their investment, with guaranteed profit margins often stipulated in their contract. If these profits aren’t realized, private companies often request – and receive – additional subsidies.

The bottom line is that private companies who bid on transit projects are interested in one thing: generating a profit. After taxpayers pay them for their services, they further maximize profits by cutting wages and benefits or raising fares and cutting services. We often see them do both. With private transit, our members and the public suffer. 

Since the government of Ontario is using this model across the province, ATU leadership from Ontario Locals have built a campaign called “Keep Transit Public.”

Full-scale campaign

With the support of neighbouring Locals, ATU Canada, the International, and Local 107-Hamilton, ON, launched a full-scale campaign in June. The city of Hamilton has received $1 billion in funding for a new light rail transit project (LRT) as a FDBOM P3.

Local 107 knew from the beginning that, in order to keep transit public, it had to partner with riders. But how does a Local of 700 members build a coalition and campaign to take on a massive government agency and the ruling party of the province?


First, local union leaders and rank-and-file volunteers engaged members one-on-one. They discussed what impact privatization would have on the work members do every day and their livelihoods. Then, we offered a way to get started: get trained on the issues and on how to engage riders. 

Dozens of ATU members volunteered on their own time to attend campaign training courses at the union hall. There, they learned about Metrolinx’s big picture plan and how to translate that into a message riders would respond to. Soon, members were signing up to talk to riders and community members at bus stops and events.

Their hard work and dedication paid off. They collected more than 6,500 petition signatures and emails that were sent to city council, provincial officials, and Metrolinx staff.

Then, Local 107 mobilized members and passengers to push Hamilton City Council to pass a motion. It called on Metrolinx to allow the local public transit agency, HSR, to operate and maintain the Hamilton LRT. Members and riders rallied outside city hall with transit workers and riders from Hamilton and across the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area.

‘First of its kind’

They also called councillors to keep the pressure on. This show of public support and solidarity gave the city council no choice but to pass the resolution – the first of its kind – demanding  that Metrolinx keep operations and maintenance public.

The model was simple: organize members to organize their passengers. Then, together, they use their collective power to get the government to change their delivery model.

Now that the Hamilton campaign has forced action from Hamilton City Council, Ontario Locals 1572-Mississauga, 1573-Brampton, 1587-Toronto at GO Transit, and 113-Toronto have launched their own Keep Transit Public Campaigns to stop privatization in their communities and help pressure the provincial government to end the use of P3s.

Bringing the fight to the next level

As In Transit went to print, Hamilton City Council voted in favor of a new resolution, 15-1, to have Local 107 represent LRT workers. The Local also introduced a new passenger bill of rights. However the final chapter in Hamilton shakes out, ATU Locals are already bringing the fight to the next level.

Ontarians will go to the polls in June for their provincial elections and then again in October for municipal elections. These looming deadlines have underscored the political urgency of this campaign.

Privatization is one of the biggest threats transit workers face today, but ATU members are not alone. Along with other unions and labour networks, such as the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, ATU has vowed to make privatization a major election issue in 2018.