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Hamilton Transit driver on coping with COVID-19

March 25, 2020 spoke with Blake McCall a Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) driver and activist in Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 107.

How have you been navigating this situation as a driver?

Blake McCall: Its been tough. The speed at which events have been changing has been lightning fast and it feels we are in the dark sometimes. All you can really do it so go day by day and try to keep sane. The hardest part for me has been the lack of trust that I feel in the passengers. You start to question every single person's motives for being out on the bus - holding on to suspicion if they actually need to be out - or being angry at the slightest cough or sneeze. This isn't my job and I never had these concerns or cares before but in the past two weeks its all I can do not to overreact to people I don't know. The contradiction to that is I have found some passengers much more willing to talk about their concerns and workplaces. For example, I had a passenger going to work at a call centre. The week before the company had, without warning, took them off of their jobs, did emergency retraining mid-shift and put them back in a more difficult job. And she was just willing to offer this info to me without prompting while also working through her mind how, in fact, the work she was doing was essential. It's little moments like that, that help a lot to get me through the day.

Transit drivers are on the front-lines having to go to work during this crisis, what is the mood amongst HSR drivers?

BM: Morale is extremely low. Many workers have kids and deal with eldercare and are worried about our exposure and what that means to loved ones. There is frustration from lack of clarity of the issues of masks. Some drivers do not feel safe with out wearing one and yet management is still threatening to send people home if they do.

How many people should we be allowing on the bus at any given time? We have reduced service to Saturday schedule during the weekdays essentially to have room for the expected numbers of drivers to be off on self quarantine, childcare etc. Though the ridership is down the number of passengers still means there are trips where there is no way they would be able to self isolate from each other. Many drivers, including myself feel we need to limit the number of passengers on the bus at any one time. However our directive from management is that as long as they are 6 feet away from the drivers, they are taking their own risks by getting on the bus and it is not our job to enforce self isolation. This is quite simply infuriating and makes us feel as though we are helping to spread the virus.

This is compounded by the fact we see how much is still open. We are taking the Tims workers, grocery store workers, other retail and manufacturing workers to work, and they have no other way to get there to say nothing of the folks that need groceries and cannot afford to buy in mass quantities. Ford’s joke list of essential businesses, along with the HSR refusal to take social distancing seriously put us all in danger to further spreading the virus. All of this leads to increasing anger and uncertainty among the drivers.

It seemed to take a while to get the HSR to block the front entrance on buses, how hard did ATU have to push to get management to take this seriously?

BM: Our local has been fighting hard for various COVID-19 health and safety (H&S) issues since January. Besides the exec and H&S committee, the membership of the local is mobilized and empowered on their own to demand changes directly to supervision and management. They are hearing from a full chorus of angry voices. The back door entrance happened within days of the request and shortly after Ottawa blocked off theirs. The real frustration was the incredibly slow rate it took to get us hand sanitizer. We only had a full stock in the past week. The HSR only had fewer than 100 bottles. It's also good to put this in context of lack of washroom facilities where we can actually wash our hands with soap and water. Often our bathrooms are only porta-potties which are irregularly filled with hand sanitizer. So often drivers have just brought our own from home. But when hoarding started it became even more frustrating to see how the employer had sat on their hands so long, when they tried to get hand sanitizer there was already a backlog in orders and took over a month to get it in. The crisis has brought up important questions of safety and whose responsibility it is to make our workplace safe. For too long the workers have taken the problems in their own hands. Why were we bringing in our own in the first place?

Lastly we are still working 40hrs a week. We need to be pushing for a reduced work week. It is only sure way that we can reduce our risk of exposure, and also help our mental health is to ensure we are not in the drivers seat for so long. As this crisis drags on the numbers continue to increase this is what we need to fighting for now.

Knowing the City Council and the constant attacks by them and the province on public transit, it seems pretty clear that they will try to use the drop in revenues from this crisis as an excuse to further cut service. What do you see as opportunities in this crisis to set the stage for resistance to the likely austerity coming down the pike?

BM: I have no doubt with the drop in revenue and ridership our pretty right wing council is salivating at the chance to further cut bus service. We changed to free service almost overnight when no one said that it could happen, yet money was found to provide that service. I think we need to hang on to that for as long as possible. It makes us safer and clearly we are able to afford it. We need to hang on to this as transformative moment for public transit and ensure fight to make it permanent.

The importance of the bus service for the city is crucial as well. We all know that we are important but I think really seeing what we are doing in the midst of a crisis should be enough to ensure that we demand more. If during a crisis the service should be running by then when the crisis is over should we be facing cuts? This also goes for our support of other workers, we now know who is essential to our lives and we should be fighting to make sure they are paid for it.

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