Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 508 represents public transit workers in Halifax and their collective agreement expired over 420 days ago. They are currently negotiating a new contract for better pay, better hours, and better treatment for their members.
Shane O’Leary is the president and business agent for ATU Local 508 in Halifax. He has 23 years of experience as a bus driver. Spring Magazine spoke to O’Leary about local 508’s fight for better working conditions for transit workers.
Can you tell us about the working conditions facing transit workers in Halifax?
We are severely short staffed in all departments, but especially in the operations department like ferries and accessible buses. There is a huge amount of overtime being racked up. Part of this is due to our scheduling, we may start at one garage but finish our shift in a totally different area. We then have to get on a bus back to the garage we started at in order to get back to our own vehicles. This is unpaid travel time and society is not about working yourself to death anymore.
We want to make enough money to live off of and have time to enjoy our families. We don’t want to work 96 hours a week, but many of our workers are racking up an incredible amount of overtime. They are working double shifts and they’re exhausted. Meanwhile there are 14 people on the sunshine list who are in management who don’t work a minute of overtime.
What would help remedy the problem of excessive hours and poor working conditions?
We need more employees. We need more transit union members working and the only way to do that quickly is to raise the wages. Higher raises will attract workers and better working conditions will make them want to stay. People are quitting en masse due to our poor working conditions and low pay, just this week we had five people resign. It is so draining.
The starting pay is not a living wage either. We start at $21.45 an hour, and you have to work at least two years before you even reach a living wage for the city. Our top rate of pay is $28.61 an hour, but you have to work at least four years before you’re even considered for that pay bump. Not to mention drivers who drive accessible buses make two dollars less an hour.
That seems unacceptable – especially considering that the living wage for the city is now $23.50 an hour. Has COVID played a role in making working conditions worse?
COVID played a partial role in it – what people need to understand is that we are essential workers too. We are being coughed on, sneezed on, people arguing with us about masks. We had to fight to even get shields in our buses to protect us. We transport people to hospitals, to work, we carry sickness around with us. We are more likely to get sick.
We were told throughout the entire pandemic that we were essential, but we aren’t treated like we are, we are not paid like we are. A good employer cares about their employees, but to the city we are just numbers. Management is running a business, but us, the workers, we care about the people.
It’s a stressful job, you always have to be alert, we care about the lives of all our passengers, pedestrians, other drivers, and bikers. -It is not easy. We lost 130 workers to attrition this year and only 88 hired. New workers come in and say ‘I didn’t sign up for 60 hours a week, I didn’t sign up to be on the road having to search for a place with a bathroom, I didn’t sign up to be abused by the public, I didn’t sign up for this.’
Low-wages and downloading work onto fewer and fewer workers is not a recipe for a strong public transit system. What else should the public know about your working condition and public transit?
They should know that the city keeps breaking our contract. We have to keep fighting them just to respect us. I also want people to understand that your bus driver, your ferry employee, we don’t make the schedule or the routes, we just do what we are told and we do so as safely as possible.
The city is growing and not doing anything to make the transit system more effective. We will probably reach a population of half a million soon, but we are still running like a small town, we still use a paper transfer system. Our transit system is so far behind. We live in a very car centric city. But it is not hard to imagine how effective public transit could be in this city.
A strong public transit system can play a key role in addressing climate change as well. If the city council won’t invest in better transit and better working conditions for staff, of course more folks will opt out of using the public transit system. This just means more cars on the road. How can people support transit workers in their fight for better working conditions and a better public transit system?
Reach out to your councilor and tell them that transit service needs to be improved. Any successful city has a successful transit system, and we currently don’t have that. Like all workers, we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, we deserve better wages and protections, and transit users deserve better too.
Contact your councilor and tell them you support ATU Local 508 – better working conditions for us means better transit for all.
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