Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

Rabid Transit: The Cold War Between the TTC and its Customers

Before I Begin, Credit Where Credit is Due

Walls of the TTC's College subway station

On Saturday night, the Ginger Ninja and I were trying to catch a southbound subway train at College station. The train doors had closed just a half-second before we got to them. Suddenly, the conductor stuck his head out the window and said “C’mon in!” and opened the doors quickly for us. Thanks, dude!

I thought that this random act of kindness made by a TTC employee was worth highlighting before getting to the meat of this article.

The “Sleeping Collector” Photo

There’s a cold war between the TTC – that’s Toronto Transit Commission, our rapid-transit system and the third-most heavily used one in North America (New York City and Mexico City hold first and second place) – and its passengers. It all started with this photo of a sleeping collector that Jason Wieler snapped shortly after 9 p.m. on a Saturday night:

TTC collector's booth, with a TTC collector sleeping in his chair

The photo was posted to TwitPic a couple of weeks ago (and has since been deleted) with the caption “Yup, love how my TTC dollars R being spent…”. It drew all sorts of attention on various social media outlets as well as in the traditional media. A new online forum, Trash Talk the TTC (an incendiary name, contrary to their stated intent of fostering constructive discussion) has since been created.

To add some fog to the storm of righteous indignation over TTC slacking just after a fare hike (as of January 1st, the adult fare is CDN$3.00), it turned out that the sleeping collector is a hero, having saved the life of a rider fifteen years ago.

Whether you consider this act to be “citizen journalism” or “being a busybody”, other people, inspired by the act and always at the ready with their cameras because they’re in just about every mobile phone, followed suit. Soon after, this photo appeared online:

Another TTC collector's booth, with another TTC collector sleeping in his chair

Then came the deluge of reports from riders: drivers stopping an in-service vehicle to go on coffee break or get money from the ATM, and so on. It’s been a regular TTC shame-a-palooza ever since the “sleeping collector” photo, and since it’s a mayoral election year, it’s a sure bet that “What are you going to do about the TTC?” is going to be one of the big issues.

The Union and Management Respond

The first response on behalf of the TTC was made by Bob Kinnear, leader of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. Bob worked his way into public demonology with a couple of strikes, including an illegal strike in 2006 and one in 2008, where they stopped working at midnight after a Friday night after giving the public a mere 90 minutes’ notice. In a statement about the sleeping collector, he shifted the blame to the customers:

Whatever the outcome of the enquiry, it is very discouraging that the picture taker and, apparently, other customers, made no attempt to determine if there was anything wrong with this TTC employee. A simple knock on the glass might have determined if the Collector was, in fact, asleep, or whether he was unconscious as a result of some medical problem. The reports that passengers were laughing at him as they passed by the booth makes this even more disturbing.

It’s this sort of blame-shifting from their organizers that makes people think that unions, while instrumental in creating many of the rights that we enjoy in the modern workplace, have slowly devolved into safe havens for the lazy and sub-par.

The PR nightmare grew so bad that Chief General Manager Gary Webster issued a strong memo to all TTC staff, which I present below in full:

Our Customers Deserve Better
February 6, 2010

I don’t know about you, but I am becoming increasingly tired of defending the reputation of the TTC; tired of explaining what is acceptable and what is not; and tired of stating the obvious: that much of the behaviour being reported is, indeed, unacceptable.

You have heard me say that I am proud of the TTC. I still am, but I am not proud of what we have been dealing with over the last several weeks.

Two weeks ago I said that the vast majority of TTC employees care about the organization and do a good job, but we can all do better. I asked everyone to respond well. Some of you did. Clearly, some of you did not.

We all have to accept responsibility for allowing the TTC to drift into a culture of unacceptable operating discipline. In other words, we have deemed it acceptable for some employees to not do all aspects of their jobs.

We have two choices. We can continue to react to issues, deal with individual employee problems, and hope that the rest of our employees get the message, behave themselves and not get caught doing something they should not be doing.

The other choice, and the one we are going to take, is a much broader approach. Expectations need to be clear, especially for frontline employees. And employees need to be held accountable for their poor performance.

We are in the customer service business, but some of the behaviour our customers have encountered recently would suggest otherwise. Our customers pay a fare and the City provides hundreds of millions of dollars every year to the TTC. This public transit agency belongs to the very people we serve.

As Chief General Manager, I am ultimately accountable to our customers. As employees, you – and you alone – are accountable for your actions. The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end. I hold all of management responsible to make this happen. Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you.

Gary Webster
Chief General Manager

The Mayor Doesn’t Respond

Mayor David Miller: "What, me worry?"

At least I believe he hasn’t. I can’t find any news items in either Bing or Google. Hardly surprising, given his popular image as a union peg boy, but disappointing all the same.

(Some) TTC Workers Respond

Here’s a recent screen shot of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113’s Facebook page. It’s since been locked away, but thanks to Google’s cache, it’s been preserved. The latest post on the wall reads “Unite against the passengers, post the BS they give us.”:

Screen shot of ATU Local 113's Facebook page

There’s also a members-only Facebook pageToronto Transit Operators Against Public Harassment — where TTC employees can share photos of riders behaving badly:

Screen shot of Toronto Transit Operators against public harassment

The Globe and Mail reports that in response to that stern rebuke from management, a member posted this message on that members-only Facebook page:"

Reminder to work to rule on Monday. Check out ATU site.

For those of you who don’t know what work-to-rule is, it’s a protest tactic where you do the bare minimum to meet your job description. The idea is to slow things down to a crawl.

I doubt that responding to complaints of half-assery with even more half-assery is going to win public support. Especially after last summer’s garbage strike, complete with obstructionist actions from picketers, which pretty much eliminated any public sympathy for public employee unions.

And so the battle continues online. The National Post’s Posted Toronto blog covers this fight in an article titled TTC Drivers and Riders Square Off on Facebook.

Weather permitting, I think I’ll be sticking to my bike for my runs downtown.

Next: Living in the panopticon!