Portrait of a Strike

“You folks taking the TTC?” asked the server at the pub my friends and I had just finished eating at. We’d been sitting around waiting for him to return my friend Morgan’s credit card.

“Yeah,” said my friend Christine. “Why?”

“TTC’s going on strike as of midnight.”

“What?” I said in a semi fatigue-and-cider-induced haze. “Are you kidding?’ (I’m sure there was a cuss word in there somewhere.)

“I just heard it on the news. They’re shutting down the subway at midnight.”

I looked at my oh-so-stylish plastic Casio. The time read 11:22.

Aw, HELL no.

I’d just begun a really decent Friday night after surviving a stressful work week. I’d gone to the Eaton Centre for some retail therapy. Met my friends for dinner.

And now this.

We quickly made our way to Queen subway station. While waiting for the next train northbound to Bloor, I truly couldn’t believe what the server at the pub had been so kind to tell us. So I went up to the burly guy in the ticket booth and asked: “Is it true the TTC’s going on strike?”

“Yeah, it’s true,” he said. “I just found out myself.”

Essentially he went on to tell me the deal (which union boss Bob Kinnear had proudly announced earlier in the week – prematurely, as it turns out) wasn’t as good as everyone had been led to believe. And he apologized, albeit half-heartedly.

My friends and I made it to Bloor, went down a floor to the Yonge station platform and parted ways as the subway to Kipling arrived. An eastbound train arrived for me just a couple minutes later.

I was a bit concerned about how far I’d get, because the train stopped longer than usual at a couple of stops along the way. But as luck would have it, the train pulled into Kennedy Station in the opening minutes of the strike.

I made a hurried dash up the stairs, down the hall, through the turnstile and up the escalator to the taxi stand running parallel to the Eglinton Ave. bridge.

Wishful thinking. Not a cab in sight. Obviously. And at least 30 or 40 people standing around on either side of the street waiting for cabs as empty buses – with “Sorry … OUT OF SERVICE” blazing in harsh, flourescent orange lettering on their electronic signage – drove past.

Chaos looked ready to ensue.

I looked around, realized what I was up against and called my father.

While I waited, I could do nothing but listen to my iPod and take in the scene around me.

A young woman in braids was in the lone phone booth behind me, talking on the phone while an older black man said in a loud voice, “Hey, hurry up! People need to use the phone! There’s a strike on!”

A small huddle of high school kids loitered on the small patch of grass, joking around – and probably trying to figure out how the hell they were getting home.

A white woman carrying plastic grocery bags – one of the last people to surface before they locked the glass doors – came up the escalator, walked towards the empty taxi stand. Within minutes, a cab arrived. She walked over, and slowly got in, amid the protests of a couple of black women who, it seems, had called for a cab. They also got in and drove off.

A woman in a dark jacket came up to me, asking if I was waiting for a ride. I said yes, because of the cab situation. I guess she’d been hoping to share one with me. I said no and wished her good luck. Didn’t care. She’d already turned away.

I heard a loud bang behind me. A young guy in a hoodie standing with his back to the glass door entrance to the subway, had kicked one of the panes. He skulked away, revealing the web-like fracture in the glass.

A group of kids had given up on finding transportation, crossed the road, walked up the hill and were climbing over the low guardrail lining the Eglinton Ave. bridge, to start taking their long walk home.

The whole scene was an eerie cross between the blackout from several years ago, and the equivalent of being at the airport after going through customs and collecting your luggage, and making your way into reception, searching for your loved ones or friends to come greet you and take you home.

Some minutes and one narrowly-missed cell phone call later, my dad arrived to my rescue and we were on our way home. And I was one of the luckier ones.

My dad couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even know there was a strike on until I’d called him.

He wasn’t enraged, but he was disappointed. Unlike a lot of people’s dads, mine used to work for TTC. Not as a driver, who most passengers blame for this situation, but as a mechanic and engine builder at one of the commission’s garages.

He didn’t think some of the union’s demands at the negotiation table were completely unreasonable. And when the union announced days ago that they wouldn’t strike, he was probably as relieved in his mind as the rest of us.

However, he voiced his displeasure at the way the TTC stranded thousands of people out on a Friday night, without providing a way for them to get home safely. The very least they could have done, he said, was finish their shifts and then officially start the strike Saturday morning.

His sentiment was echoed by TTC workers who’d called in to late-night talk shows to extend their sympathies to stranded passengers.

He also doesn’t think that the entire union – made up of some 9,000 people, NOT ALL bus, streetcar and subway operators, by the way – just decided to wilfully screw 1.5 million people over, as many reliant on TTC, in their ire, would like to believe.

Between what my father said last night, and what I’ve hearing this morning, the main group within the union with the biggest beef over the deal that was to be ratified were the maintenance workers – particularly with the issue of contracting out their work.

Apparently they weren’t particularly happy with what the union reps at the negotiation table were accepting. So it sounds like they decided to use their trump card and call on their fellow union brothers and sisters to send the union negotation team a message. After all, the maintenance workers supported the other TTC workers in strikes gone by. It was time to return the favour, no? Or so the scenario goes. Of course, this could be complete hearsay.

Personally, I’m torn on the issue. My dad’s a retired TTC worker. I myself am part of a union, in a different industry. People should, in theory, be able to fight for the right to fair working conditions and compensation if they are injured, or worse.

But I find this current situation deplorable. Passengers like me who rely on TTC as the primary mode of transport, have now been taken hostage and are being made to suffer. Make no mistake – if there were any passengers who respected TTC workers, that respect evaporated just after 11 p.m. last night when we were all given absolutely no notice.

And the saddest part?

As hard as this might be for some people to believe, not all of those workers are scum. There are TTC employees who are not only sympathetic to the passengers being left in the lurch, but who are also angry at the fashion in which this thing has been handled.

But when this thing is settled and the ink dries, they’ll be the ones on the first day back who’ll take abuse by people who think every single worker is scum, who truly believes these guys deserve to be spat on, kicked, and generally disrespected.

Take note. ‘Cause this could get nasty.