Transport Canada Shirks Duty, Allows Greyhound Canada to Profit from COVID-19 Pandemic

In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the significance of frontline workers into prominent focus. Health-care workers, grocery store employees, transit workers, truck drivers – the list goes on – are all part of the foundation of our economy, and crucial to the continued functioning of our society. Despite their role, they are underpaid and undervalued. Even worse, when it comes to redressing these issues, workers’ voices have gone unheard.

In early May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized the importance of recognizing those who were risking their health to keep Canada moving. The federal government took a step towards acknowledging their responsibility towards these individuals and announced that it would contribute up to $3 billion to provinces and territories to boost wages for eligible workers across the country through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. But these measures fail to address the root of the issue and even exclude entire groups of critically important workers, blatantly disrespecting their efforts during the pandemic.

For many vulnerable populations who have no other means of transport, access to intercity transit is vital to their ability to support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, federal relief measures have largely left provinces and territories to make decisions regarding wage boosts, neglecting to provide any standards or guidelines to ensure that those who need it most receive the help that they deserve. Now, private sector transit drivers at Greyhound Canada are being threatened with termination if they refuse to accept an appalling 15% wage cut in addition to significant cuts to long-established pension benefits. Otherwise, the very workers that have helped keep Canada moving will be repaid for their diligence with the loss of their jobs – and in spite of everything that has been said, parliament continue to look on as passive observers instead of backing their words with concrete action.

Even worse, this isn’t the first time that Greyhound have tried to impose massive pay cuts by citing a decrease in ridership. In the United States in 1983, Greyhound initiated negotiations by requesting essentially a 30% cut in wages and benefits, using a familiar justification – that the company would be forced to shut down services otherwise. Yet while workers were being asked to accept pay cuts, management executives would receive significant salary and benefit increases that same year. After seven weeks on strike, with workers struggling to pay their bills, employees eventually voted to accept a deal that meant a 7.8% wage cut in addition to losing health and pension benefits. Unlike Greyhound, the workers simply did not have the financial capacity to withstand the loss of wages during that seven-week period.

ATU Canada President John Di Nino denounced Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s silence in a press release yesterday, placing the onus on the federal government to prevent the exploitation of transportation workers by multinational companies such as Greyhound Canada (and their parent company, First Group). Di Nino further cautioned that accepting the cuts proposed by Greyhound Canada would set a dangerous example for companies across the transportation sector and “put all workers in Canada at risk of arbitrary and unjust attacks on our collective standard of living”. To be clear, short-term pandemic relief for companies must not come at the expense of Canadian workers. We understand and empathize with the genuine financial struggles faced by many small businesses. Unfortunately, the legitimacy of that struggle is diminished when large corporations take advantage of such sentiment for insidious purposes.

ATU Local 1415 President Frank Marsh recounts his knowledge of Greyhound executives who started their careers as employees in similar positions to those they now seek to stifle. Over the years, these executives have lost that connection to their humble beginnings and forgotten the devastating impact that the corporate pursuit for profit can have on regular employees. In particular, Marsh names David Leach – who started at Greyhound as a baggage handler in 1986 and is now President and CEO of Greyhound Lines. Promises to improve working conditions, such as reducing the average age of the bus fleet and thus repair expenses, have gone forgotten and unfulfilled.

Now, in a direct contradiction to Greyhound’s earlier claims that closing Western operations would make it possible to sustain operations in the East, the company is attempting to claim that further cuts are necessary to avoid shutdown. Yet Greyhound Canada is also forced to shoulder repair costs for older equipment while its US counterpart is supplied with new gear, shipping its hand-me-downs north of the border. It seems clear that any efforts to cut costs are set up for failure; an attempt to demonstrate that wage cuts are the only option. But the true motive behind these extreme cuts: First Group is currently trying to sell Greyhound Canada. Wage and benefit cuts for the remaining employees would mean increased profits from the sale, at the expense of permanent setbacks to workers’ rights and, just as importantly, to these employees’ livelihoods.

The federal and provincial governments must share accountability to prevent the underhanded tactics used by multinational corporations. Without unequivocal condemnation of such exploitation and firm guidelines to protect workers, governments signal their tacit approval of companies who hide behind the shadow of a global pandemic to take advantage of their employees’ financial vulnerability. Approximately 400 Greyhound Canada employees have already been laid off due to the pandemic – but the federal government continues to ignore the problems faced by the mass transit industry.

Our elected representatives must understand that protecting the rights of frontline workers will benefit all Canadians during times of crisis. Conversely, allowing companies to threaten their employees in the interests of their own bottom line will no doubt result in the further alienation of those to whom we owe the utmost respect – for continuing to provide vital services at the risk of their own health, not only in transit, but across many vital industries. These methods are unjust and untenable.

We therefore encourage those who can, to contact their local MPs and MPPs and urge them to take much-needed action. It is exceedingly clear that now is a time for Canadians to come together and support each other through the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the consequences it has entailed. Unfortunately, it is disheartening to see that many corporations have chosen to focus on maximizing profits instead of protecting their own employees. This short-sighted approach signals a refusal to consider the welfare of their employees beyond what is mandated by law. If so, then parliament must intervene and repay its debt to those who choose, day after day, to risk themselves and their families to ensure that our nation continues to function.

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