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TTC Union head Bob KinnearPeter Power/The Globe and Mail

Tuesday wasn't the best of mornings for Bob Kinnear.

The leader of Canada's largest transit union had been up late the night before, narrowly averting a bus strike in York Region, where, for the third time in as many years, his own members rejected a tentative settlement he endorsed.

Now Mr. Kinnear was preparing for the first day of formal contract talks with the Toronto Transit Commission at the Delta Hotel on Kennedy Road.

When he slipped out around 8 a.m. to pick up some Tim Hortons for the negotiating crew, the radio in his black 2008 Buick Allure blared news that would radically alter the talks: The province planned to bow to Mayor Rob Ford and table legislation forbidding TTC workers from legally walking off the job ever again.

Mr. Kinnear's latest gambit – a high-profile promise to stay off the picket line if only the McGuinty government would think twice about banning future TTC strikes – had failed.

"Never a dull moment," Mr. Kinnear said, grinning, during a break from the TTC talks the next day. "I think that the provincial government over the last number of weeks has indicated to us in an indirect way that they were going to cower to Mayor Ford's request."

Cowering, cowardly – those are the kind of bon mots Mr. Kinnear tosses at his political opponents, including his new arch-enemy, Mr. Ford.

Such predictable union rhetoric, however, masks the unpredictable side of Toronto's most embattled union boss.

Rough week aside, the man who represents more than 10,000 transit workers in the region is the rare labour leader who recognizes the salad days are over for public-sector unions, especially in Rob Ford's Toronto.

That's why Mr. Kinnear's actions this week spoke so much louder than his words.

Even as he called Mr. Ford a "coward" Tuesday, he stuck to his voluntary no-strike pledge.

"I can tell you very clearly that I have instructed my members from the beginning of this term that there are going to be decisions and positions that we take as a union that may not be popular with the rank-and-file, but they're decisions that are going to be made in the best interests of our organization for the long term," Mr. Kinnear said.

In the face of a hostile public and a sputtering economy, Mr. Kinnear insists Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 has no choice but to play nice.

"A small percentage of the members perceive that as, 'You've turned into a company person. You've gotten soft,'" Mr. Kinnear said. "But I think it's important we're upfront with our membership. The old days are over. We've got to be a lot smarter in how we deliver our message."

The family union

Mr. Kinnear has become a lot smarter about how he does his job since leaping from subway driver to ATU Local 113 president in 2003.

"When he first started out, he was a beginner," said retired councillor Howard Moscoe, who was TTC chair when workers went on a wildcat strike in 2006. "But I've watched him over the years and I think he's matured in the role. He's certainly much more diplomatic and much more understanding."

Raised poor by a single mom in Cabbagetown, the 32-year-old had never held a formal union post before he beat a competitor backed by the union's executive.

Name recognition probably helped Mr. Kinnear, now 40.

His father is Larry Kinnear, a labour bigwig who today serves as an ATU international vice-president negotiating contracts in eastern Canada.

"My dad wasn't around a lot when I was a kid," Mr. Kinnear said. "So I think, as any little boy does, particularly when their father is not around, they aspire to be their father."

But the younger Kinnear didn't just aspire to be his dad. He wanted to surpass him. "I always wanted to have the position that he never had the guts to go after, which was the president [of ATU 113.]

With his slicked-back hair and gaudy gold jewellery, Mr. Kinnear still has the "I'll show 'em" attitude of a working-class kid chronically underestimated by his betters.

The challenge: Labour past v. labour present

Mr. Kinnear remains a brash guy. Today he's a brash guy struggling to straddle the worlds of labour past and present without losing the support of the rank-and-file, something his stance on essential services legislation illustrates.

The old-school union man in him is hell-bent on guarding a right his forebears fought hard to win. But the modern labour leader in him recognizes he must win over an unsympathetic public.

Hence his voluntary promise not to strike.

Complicating matters further, Mr. Kinnear's members don't seem particularly fussed about losing the right to strike.

Banning strikes tends to increase wages over time. Drivers dread facing riders' wrath after work stoppages that never last more than a day or two before the province legislates TTC employees back to work anyway.

"A lot of the employees I've spoken to, especially the operators, don't feel as strongly as Bob does about the principles related to being legislated an essential service," said Gary Webster, the TTC's chief general manager.

"Do we benefit by a strike? I don't think anybody does," said one streetcar driver outside the Russell carhouse this week. He declined to give his name because TTC staff aren't authorized to speak to the media.

"I think he's wasting his time fighting this," another streetcar driver added. "A lot of guys aren't Kinnear fans. A lot of us voted for him because he was the lesser of two evils."

So is Mr. Kinnear out of touch on the issue? He has a history of misreading the rank-and-file at contract time.

Members have thrice rejected tentative deals he recommended: First, in April, 2008, when the nearly 10,000-strong TTC bargaining unit walked off the job for two days, beginning at midnight on a Friday; second, in September, 2008, when the 150-strong Viva bus drivers bargaining unit went on strike for two weeks; and third, when about 200 drivers for Veolia Transport in York Region turned down a deal earlier this month.

They were scheduled to vote again on the exact same offer Friday, Feb. 25.

As for the 2008 TTC strike, rumour-mongering and dissention on the union's executive, reportedly led by then vice-president Kevin Morton and the more militant maintenance side of the union, sparked the "no" vote.

"[Mr. Kinnear's]authority was effectively undermined at that point in time. I think Bob did a good job for the next union election to get a union executive that was more in tune with his thinking," Mr. Webster said.

In December, 2009, Mr. Morton ran for secretary-general and lost. Mr. Kinnear was re-elected with 77 per cent of the vote. "Problem solved," Mr. Kinnear said with a smirk. (Mr. Morton declined to be interviewed for this story.)

With a strong mandate and a supportive executive behind him, Mr. Kinnear has a better shot at dragging his union out of a past to which it can't return.

When poor customer service at the TTC exploded into a front-page issue last year, Mr. Kinnear was initially defensive.

He later reached out to upset riders with a series of televised town hall meetings, one hosted by former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory – not a known union-booster.

When three TTC drivers were caught texting behind the wheel last month, Mr. Kinnear made no apologies on their behalf. Instead, in an uncharacteristic move for a union leader, he slammed their actions in public.

"I've been very clear with the membership that we are not going to tolerate individual members compromising our credibility," Mr. Kinnear said.

It's just one way Mr. Kinnear is playing tough with his own members as he ushers them into a modern, more perilous era for public-sector unions. He hopes they'll stick with him.

Mr. Kinnear intends to run for this fourth term in December, 2012.

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