It’s been 25 years since the last HSR strike – an unprecedented period of labour peace in the history of Hamilton’s public transit.
HSR strikes had been a relatively routine affair during the 20th century.
The November 1906 strike turned into a riot, with the Mayor reading the Riot Act and the regular army brought in from Toronto to quash the strike.
When HSR workers hit the picket lines in November 1998, everyone expected the strike to last at most two weeks.
Nobody expected, and nobody planned for, what it became – an unprecedented 12-week-long winter strike.
Two years prior, in 1996, HSR workers walked the picket line for six days in the week leading up to the Grey Cup.
The Region quickly gave them a better offer before the big game.
With only one week until the big game, Hamilton’s HSR workers went on strike.
Facing the embarrassment of hosting a Grey Cup without bus service, the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth Council quickly caved.
The six-day strike ended just in time for the Grey Cup parade.
The Region gave HSR workers a two-year sweetheart deal.
The union got nearly everything they wanted and a $1000 signing bonus to get buses back on the road. [$1717 inflation-adjusted to today]
The signing bonus was greater than a week’s salary. The top-paid bus operators made around $800 per week at the time.
The 1996 was generous, and I do not recall anyone being surprised.
[I missed two days of school that week. I lived in a foster home near Upper Wellington and Concession Avenue. I attended Glendale Secondary School in East Hamilton. No buses = no way for me to get to school.]
Approaching the 1998 strike deadline, all the adults in my life expected a short strike.
After all, there was no way the Regional Council would allow the strike to continue into December.
There was Christmas shopping to be done, festivities to attend, and nobody thought it possible that seniors would rely upon public transit would be shut-ins at Christmas.
A winter strike was unfathomable.
When the 1998 strike began, I lived in a foster home near Cannon Street East and Sanford Avenue North.
I missed a few days of school each of the first two weeks. None of the adults in my life seemed concerned.
Teachers assigned work that could be done at home for students who relied upon the HSR.
Then, it became evident that Regional Council was not budging.
The final offer was indeed final.
One of my English teachers drove me to and from school each day. Children’s Aid gave me a taxi allowance equal to the cost of a bus pass, I could use that to support getting home from my part-time job on the worse nights of winter.
Otherwise, I walked for hours to get to work and get home.
By mid-January, I was showing up at City Hall to vocally (and loudly, yes, yelling) express my anger at politicians about the strike.
I remember how angry people were at Hamilton Mayor Bob Morrow.
I did not understand that it was actually Regional Chair Terry Cooke who I should express my ire towards.
Eventually, HSR workers were forced to accept the final offer. HSR service resumed, and fares were free for a few weeks.
There were slightly fewer passengers. People had bought cars or kept to their carpools.
I’ve known many HSR operators over the years. Those who lived through the 1998 strike never wanted to walk a picket line again.
During the past twenty-five years, HSR contract negotiations have gone to the wire.
Each time, the union and city were not far apart. The strike deadline motivated the sides to hold an all-nighter and finalize a deal.
Both sides were reluctant to repeat 1998.
In 2015, a deal was announced at 5:01 a.m., with picket lines being set up. [The deal was close enough when the strike deadline passed at 12:01 a.m. that union members continued cleaning and fuelling buses overnight.]
Today Feels Like a Strike Will Happen
Today feels different.
There are only around 20 or so current HSR employees who walked the bitterly cold picket lines.
Nobody on the management side of the table was around back in 1998.
[Mayor Andrea Horwath was a rookie regional councillor representing the old City of Hamilton Ward 2.]
The two sides feel far apart this time.
Working from home means picket lines will not inconvenience city management.
There is bicycling infrastructure, bike share, and electric scooters. Able-bodied riders along the B-Line corridor will use these alternatives.
The school boards plan to provide some form of school bus transportation for secondary and middle school students who ride the HSR.
Having taken the advice of recently retired City Manager Janette Smith to increase management pay by 10 to 15 percent for each manager and non-unionized employee, Council is being told the City’s fiscal cupboard is bare.
The City’s senior management team now tells Council that taxes must increase 14 percent in 2023 to pay the city’s expenses.
There’s another reason why the City’s final offer feels final – it is the same deal the City’s largest CUPE 5167 ratified.
It does not seem rational for City Hall to give HSR workers a better deal.
Doing so invites labour unrest from CUPE in four years – why would they accept a final offer in 2027 knowing they left money on the table in 2023?
I am preparing for a long strike.
Obviously, I hope a deal is reached. I use public transit.
Not only does a strike personally affect me, I know people will be unable to make ends meet without public transit.
Council set things in motion when they approved the massive managerial pay increase.
HSR union president Eric Tuck summed up the frustration of those who make the HSR work:
“We refuse to be left behind while bureaucrats benefit with record raises and the ability to work from home 2-3 days a week. Our transit workers were on the frontlines during the pandemic, and we don’t have the luxury of working from home.”
Tuck walked the bitterly cold picket line 25 years ago.
He has no illusions about what is at stake.
Production Details v. 1.0.0 Published: November 7, 2023 Last edited: November 7, 2023 Author: Joey Coleman Edit Record v. 1.0.0 original version