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As job action escalates, so does the general unrest around Greater Vancouver as transit workers continue fighting for a fair contract, safer working conditions, and time for eating, resting, and basic bathroom breaks between runs.
So far, media attention has been focused mainly on Translink and Coast Mountain Bus Company’s perspective, as well as the general ire of the public who voice their concerns about their access to public transportation. This isn’t surprising, as it is rare in transit strikes to hear the workers’ or the union’s full side of the story, and misinformation and misunderstanding stokes the conflict between different populations of the lower mainland.
Truth be told, the public rarely gets the chance to see the full extent of the job, and why it is not only the wages but also particularly the unfair working conditions that are being protested at this time.
Imagine yourself as a trolley bus driver, for example — a bus that physically can’t go much faster than a certain limit even if you wanted it to, lest the wires carrying enough electricity to instantly kill a man comes off, putting everyone in danger.
You have 2 minutes of turn around time at this end of your route to choose between a much needed bathroom break or a chance to grab a bite—your next opportunity to do so is not for another hour or two on a long, stressful route often marred by construction, normal passenger disruptions, and traffic.
The bathroom is messy and unkempt as dozens upon dozens of stressed workers pass through it, shaving precious minutes off their already unrealistically tight schedule. Microwaves are shoved in precarious places; you make the most out of one of them as you heat your leftover sandwich from yesterday — there isn’t time for anything else.
Construction at UBC halts your bus for two minutes, and suddenly, before even reaching stop #2 on the route, you are already behind schedule.
Stopping for a running passenger, pausing to give directions to a lost tourist, waiting as another passenger searches their bag for a lost Compass card, adds another 3, 5, 10 minutes, and suddenly the screen before you flashes a discerning -10. You’re not even halfway to the end yet, not even close.
By the next stop a tired mother of 3 is at the end of her rope. It isn’t her fault, but it isn’t yours either. She snaps out a “I’m already late and you were supposed to be here 10 minutes ago — can’t you do your goddamn f***ing job properly?”
You can only sit there and take it as she storms into the back, dragging her 3 kids with her. After all, you can’t start an argument with a passenger. You’ll always lose, and you can’t afford someone filing a complaint. One of her kids starts crying as a long line of tired commuters crowds on after her. They’re too tired at acknowledge you as they shuffle themselves into the packed bus.
Someone at the back is yelling for the back door, and mutters a curse as they hop off. As they do, another passenger shoves the back door open and hops in from the back, adding another precious few seconds at this stop. They’re technically not supposed to do that — you’re not a B-line — but you don’t have the time or energy to deal with it.
A few stops later you slam on the brakes as a passenger with a walker waves at you to wait for him. You do. As you usher other passengers out of the accessibility seats, a few of them grumbling under their breath, and lower the ramp for him to get on, you’re acutely aware that you’re already 15 minutes behind, and this is only going to add another 3. Of course, it isn’t his fault, but once again, it isn’t your’s either.
By the time you reach the bus loop at the other end you’re tired and stressed, still processing that one passenger that hurled a colourful sentence of insults at you as they punched the bus door and stormed off onto the street before you even had time to respond. You’re just glad they decided to take the physical part of their anger out on the bus, and not on you.
You were planning for a 10 minute break at the loop to just rest and drink some water, but due to delays on the way your 10 minute break has turned into 0. Actually, it’s a measly -5. You debate whether to take a break anyways and only add to the stress later in the day. In the end, you simply allow yourself to run to the bathroom and pee before restarting the bus and heading back the other way. This time, you’re already late from the start, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Day in and day out the reality of the job grinds away at your physical and emotional health. Occasionally, an enthusiastic “thank you” or “have a nice day!” gives you a little cheering up, but it takes little out of the stress. By the time the work day is over, you’re absolutely spent. You have no energy to go to the gym like you planned; you simply order takeout from the fast food place downstairs, and retreat to your couch for a desperately needed nap.
Truth is, your schedule doesn’t allow time for anything that happens in reality. Your schedule is the schedule that assumes that your job involves nothing but cruising from point A to point B — but never once has that been the case. However, you never have the chance to explain this. You simply return to work the next day bracing for the same.
On good days, you get disgruntled passengers and delays. On the worst days, you get things thrown at your face, and furious passengers kicking at your bus if you’re lucky, or going full force at you personally if you’re not.
In most buses, there is no physical barrier to protect you. On the buses which do have them, any determined person can easily work around them, and they do nothing to stop the verbal insults.
In cases where your safety is at risk, help rarely arrives in time to do anything for you. By the time transit security arrives, the angry passenger is long gone — you cannot, by law, detain them without getting into a lot of trouble you won’t be able to dig yourself out of — and you’re simply left with no option but to continue on, and process what happened later on, on your own.
A sustainable public transit system is at the heart of any city, town, or community. But a system cannot be sustainable if its workers are working in conditions that only inevitably lead to stressed out, burnt out human beings. It’s far too easy to forget that the person at the wheel is another human, with their own personal life, friends, family, and problems to worry about.
I see a lot of angry comments online regarding the striking situation, and of course commuters have a right to be displeased, especially those who rely solely on public transit to go to school, work, to run errands, to go to appointments.
But a lot of this anger, whilst justified, is directed at the wrong source. There is no transit worker who is deliberately trying to add stress to anyone’s lives. Many of them also commute like everyone else, and are well aware — likely more aware than the average passenger — of the realities of the situation.
The issue is not the workers who are fighting for their rights. The issue is that at the end of the day, there is a clear imbalance of power between the employers, who hold the cards and hold the money, and the employees. There is no equal footing, and no equal battleground here.
Front line workers — whether it be transit workers or retail workers — have historically faced the brunt of the public’s anger and frustration, whilst employers have money and power on their side and are often able to just sit back and let the public’s anger take its course. Anger at the employers have the power to improve long term working conditions, leading to a more sustainable transit system, healthier transit workers, and thereby happier passengers too. Anger at the employees usually only helps the status quo.
Bus drivers deserve healthy, safe working conditions that are fundamental to a person’s wellbeing. Commuters deserve to be able to get to where they want to, when they want to. Those two statements don’t contradict each other, and are able to be both true at the same time.
Workers’ rights are not a zero sum game. Is it true that retail workers, healthcare workers, so on and so forth, also deserve better? Yes, of course they do. But the striking transit workers aren’t taking away from any of that. At the end of the day, everyone deserves better, and when one sector’s workers are able to fight for better working conditions, it leads the norm for others as well.
Public sway is the key when it comes to these situations. And unfortunately in the case of transit strikes, public sway is incredibly easily pushed against the front line providers of the service, rather than the employers who put them out there.
You will never see those in the big chairs with the big paycheques. They’re safely hidden behind the public, behind the workers, as the public and workers end up fighting it out with each other.
If you’re feeling angry, upset, disgruntled at the current situation, direct your emotions to where it makes a difference. End the strike not by resetting everyone back to the unsustainable and frankly unjust status quo, but by creating a new, better one for everyone.
Put pressure on Translink, Coast Mountain Bus Company, and The City of Vancouver, rather than the workers who you see out there every day just wanting a healthier norm for the wellbeing of not just themselves, but the city as a whole.