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opinion

Toronto’s public transit agency, the Toronto Transit Commission, is already in crisis because of a collapse in the number of riders during the pandemic. Now it is heading for more trouble. The fault lies squarely with the TTC’s main union.

The TTC, like lots of government agencies, decided to make vaccination mandatory for all its employees. That made good, solid sense. Many TTC staffers come into close contact with the general public. Hundreds of thousands of people still ride its subways, streetcars and buses every day. They deserve to know that the people serving them are safe and vaccinated.

But the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 is opposed to the vaccine mandate. It says the 12,000 TTC workers it represents should be able to decide on their own whether to get their shots. “While ATU Local 113 supports COVID-19 vaccinations, we remain firm in our belief that getting vaccinated should be the personal choice of each worker. As a union, we have a duty to support our members and protect their rights.”

At first it even discouraged members from disclosing their vaccination status. As a result, the TTC said it had an “abysmal” disclosure rate. When the agency took the union to Ontario’s labour board over the issue, the union did an about-face and urged members to reveal their status. But union president Carlos Santos took the opportunity to lash out at the TTC, saying it was forcing workers “to undergo a medical procedure under duress.” Some members, he said, are refusing vaccination because of “legitimate social and historical reasons for distrusting the Canadian medical system” while others were balking because of “personal and religious belief systems.”

He passed over the fact that the TTC is offering an out to employees with legitimate medical issues or an approved human-rights exemption. It has also given hesitant workers some slack by delaying the vaccination deadline. Despite that leniency, a small minority of the agency’s active employees have not disclosed their status, forcing it to scale back service on some routes temporarily to account for those who will be ineligible to work. It is rushing to hire staff and recruit retirees to help close the gap.

Meanwhile, the union continues its campaign against the mandate. This week, it applied to the courts for an injunction against disciplining employees who don’t comply. That is the last sort of publicity the TTC needs as it strives to build back ridership, still at about half prepandemic levels.

And all of it is entirely unnecessary. Vaccination is strongly in the interest not just of the riders but of the employees themselves, who would benefit from the assurance that fellow workers were vaccinated. Health and safety is a top union priority, so it’s a puzzle why the union is making such a fuss over the one measure – mandatory vaccination – most certain to keep them safe.

Other agencies and governments have brought in vaccine mandates with nothing like the same stubborn pushback. The city of Toronto is requiring its 32,000 employees to get their shots or face suspension and eventually termination. It’s working. By the start of this month, just one per cent had failed to say whether they were vaccinated. Ninety-four per cent of those that did disclose their status were vaccinated. The city is working hard to persuade the rest. It has suspended just 248 staff members for non-compliance so far.

Toronto’s public school board, too, has a vaccine mandate and most of its huge workforce is complying. Some unions, like the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), have positively lobbied for mandatory vaccination, saying it helps keep their members safe.

Naturally, every union wants to be seen to be fighting for its members. Unions are programmed to oppose arbitrary or unfair measures by employers. Vaccine mandates are neither. They are a reasonable response to a health emergency that has now killed five million people around the world. Organizations that mandate vaccination see inoculation rates shoot up, to the benefit of everyone.

An agency responsible for moving large numbers of people around the city in closed vehicles is one of the most obvious places to make vaccination mandatory. It’s a shame the union doesn’t see that.

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