Thursday, May 24, 2007

STMbling

Once more, this time with feeling.

We've been here before. The last STM maintenance strike was for the same reasons given this week. The administrators in charge of the system have still refused to accept that necessary to a functioning system, employees must have some sense of stability and appreciation.

Since I've been working tirelessly for huge, faceless corporations with little in the way of souls for the last five years, since that work has included hiring and firing, contract negotiation and job supervision of technicians, contractors and maintenance workers, I present to you, the world, the mermaid's take on the STM walk-out.

1. Brain Drain

Quebec is in a unique situation regarding the loss of skilled personnel to other provinces and other countries. Our education system is such that regular Cegep graduates from Quebec are more educated and/or skilled than high-school graduates in other provinces. Couple that with universities about 1 quarter the price of the rest of Canada, and you are in for a huge influx of people who come here to learn, stay to be certified and leave for the money.

Colleges are advertising all over the place for skilled trade programs and the office of Emploi Quebec will subsidize those who wish to go back to school and learn a trade. Why? We're missing people. There are not enough skilled electricians, mechanics, plumbers, HVAC technicians, specialized door and window technicians and general tradesmen to keep up with the demand in the province. In specific terms, that means that unionized employees for the STM who don't need contractual work and who in fact keep the trains running must still work overtime and swing shifts to keep up with the demands of the now even larger system.

In the face of this, and given it's recent hiring frenzy, how can the administration of the STM refuse to offer new employees a reasonable salary and pension? Would it make more sense to send them to Toronto where the TTC will simply offer more to upkeep their infrastructure? New employees generally get fewer benefits, perks and desirable shifts. In order to recruit talented and dedicated mechanics, a reason must be offered to stay on and the simplicity of offering a proper pension and a salary re-evaluation after a year is not only reasonable, it is standard practice in most industries.

2. Green Dream

Normally Quebec is way ahead of the rest of the country in terms of progressive, environmentally-friendly policies. We now see more people more willing to make different choices to leave a smaller footprint ecologically on this world. Strikes and service interruptions due to disputes between workers and administrators leave a bad impression and can be prohibitive for those people only now beginning to use the Banlieu trains and the new stations in Laval.

3. Green Dream encore

People are less likely now to purchase monthly passes given that the cost continually rises to purchase them, but in the case of this month and any other strike month, the pass is actually of less value than the one previous. If fewer people purchase passes and use the service, the STM will lose not only money but ridership. It can't be about where we are right now, the Montmorency stations are indicative of the huge budget snafus that are becoming commonplace with many city services. It has to be about where we will be in five years when the population of our island will be denser and more commuters will need reasonable ways to get around. Pension governance and employee retention are key factors in any organization that wishes to thrive rather than crumble.

4. Revenue Generation

I wish I knew exactly how much Apple Inc. paid for those gigantic ipod ads in Atwater station. How much the movie posters cost in Berri-uqam. How much the covers of the turnstiles go for when McDonalds wants to come off as eco-friendly. And how much revenue is generated from the ads now seen printed directly on the STM monthly passes? That along with the property rental paid to the STM for the depanneurs and small coffee stations inside the metros, are we really willing to accept that money is just not coming in? Giant video screens advertise to us at major stations (along with giving us helpful information like when the next train is coming). I do not accept that there isn't a cash-flow to support the employees who run the city transit system. Should that money be mismanaged, well, that truly is not the fault or responsibility of the workers who manage and maintain the trains and buses and escalators and station air-flow and lights and clean-ups and pest-control and so on.

The workers of the STM deserve what they are asking for. It is not unreasonable, illegal or unnecessary. For their sake I hope the strike ends soon.

(and for mine too).

6 comments:

Ryshpan said...

You do know that the maintenance workers already make around $25/hour, more than many other people in this city.

If they want to protest, fine. Personally I find that the maintenance workers (at least in terms of tangible, end-user-visible results) are the first ones to strike but the last ones to really get anything done. So many aspects of the STM are in disarray - from filth to malfunction to just stupid stuff like replacing the ribbons that print transfers - that I find it hard to muster up any sort of sympathy for a union eagerly willing to hold the entire city hostage for a pittance in their pension.

Ryshpan said...

Er, I meant to add, if they want to protest, fine, but the STM should be grouped in this city with the rest of the essential services like police and firefighters - they can protest however they like but they cannot strike outright. Too many people in this city rely solely on the metros and buses as their sole means of transportation, and with a combination of a vast artistic community and a rapidly aging population, the majority of metro riders are not on the 9-5 schedule that has been conserved in this reduced schedule. I've had students cancel their lessons because the times they've scheduled with me don't coincide nicely with the hours the metro's running now.

Freshwater Mermaid said...

I'm so glad you brought up the topic of essential services. The STM absolutely should be grouped into such categories as police and firemen. At the moment, the strike tactics undertaken are allowing the strain to go on and the administration to drag their feet. Holding the city hostage however, I don't think is a fair assessment of the situation. The administration of the STM has had years to resolve this issue and they have kept workers at loose ends unnecessarily. As such, the STM workers looked at the peak hours when the highest volume of riders were using the service and eliminated other service hours accordingly. In this way, the business of the city may continue. The idea per se is to inconvenience enough people that the administration has to take notice of the gravity of the situation. This is difficult to undertake while retaining goodwill on the part of the consumer. We are all inconvenienced and I'm sure to varying degrees we all hope it ends well.

On the other point you mentioned, I definitely agree that as part of the negotiation, oversight must be a key factor in the evaluation of salary, benefits and indeed employee retention. There is huge room for improvement and that is certainly where the workers of the system can meet their overseers halfway. It makes no sense whatsoever to offer guarantees without demanding appropriate service levels, and certainly this is an opportunity to benchmark same. I don't see eye to eye with you on the description of pensions however. Pensions are not only part of an existent agreement between current employees and the employer, they are standard part of Canadian employment practice. If the employee is in a profession that includes the potential for working odd hours, handling dangerous materials, working in high-voltage areas and confined spaces for years at a time, I feel it is reasonable for said employee to expect paid compensation at the end of the service term. Such covenants are both historical and sacred in nature. If the employees begin to see that there is no stability or respect for the nature of the work done, they will leave and our beloved subway system will begin to resemble early Canadian railways where young boat-people brought nitro into the caves for a reward just as you describe: a pittance.

There are many other ways to cut costs and mend fiscal imbalance. Freezing pensions is not a good one.

Salary is another hot topic and I admit, when the numbers are crunched, the salary is ever so slightly more than I make. Once all taxes and regular deductions have been removed, the cost of living has been met in an adequate fashion. And for what type of work? Late nights cleaning up after drunks underground, (full disclosure, they've cleaned up after me more than once), changing bulbs above dank walkways, repairing worn tires in over-heated caves. I mention all of this because when I compare that to sitting in front of a computer all day in an air-conditioned office for a few bucks less per hour than that, I have no desire whatsoever to learn any mechanics or seek employment dealing with frustrated riders in the early morning. No job is cushy. There is a very different physical aspect to the jobs undertaken by the STM transit staff and for their sake, I must sincerely hope that the STM sets an example for all other employers who wish to make changes to their bottom line. Ask any VP of HR how hard it is to gain and retain talented staff and then ask any VP of Finance the easiest way to cut costs. It's not by ruining the company reputation and good standing with unionized employees: it's by reducing waste and more effectively finishing projects. The current administration of the STM needs a lesson in both.

cheers,
Julia

Craig Sauvé said...

Hey, I wrote a post on the same topic..and took a similar position. Nice piece, bravo.

Craig Sauvé said...

p.s.: Ryshie, how is the fact that they already make 25$ an hour an argument? As far as I'm concerned, more people should be paid such a sum. I think what they ask for is fair.

This argument is also applied by those who wish to see tuition unfrozen: '...Quebeckers already have the lowest tuition...blah, blah, blah...bunch of whiny students, blah, blah, blah...' I always say that such is a positive aspect of our society and that we could do better!

Ryshpan said...

I have nothing against the workers - my beef is with their union reps. The argument is that they already went to strike a mere couple of years ago on similar issues. I'm not disputing that pensions and decent wages are important - and in fact I agree with you that $25/hour should be standard, if not surpassed, in most industries. I just feel that the CSN is quick to strike without truly giving negotiations any time to function, or without looking at alternative forms of protest.

The STM is as much at fault as the CSN for not providing adequate resources for the workers to do their jobs. It shouldn't take over a year to fix a friggin' escalator at Snowdon metro. It's just frustration, really, that fares continue to be hiked, service continues to be cut (comparing the 161 schedule from five years ago, when I moved here, to the service now shows drastic increases in wait time between buses), and nothing seems to be getting better in the system. If the city and province really need to go green, the importance of the STM almost needs to be legislated.