In the half-light of early dawn, slow-motion transit workers throw switches, repair track and wash the tiles in subway stations. In the background, a string section plays a dramatic air.
"What is the lifeblood of a city? It's what keeps it moving," an announcer intones. "Because if a city can't move, it can't grow. If a city can't move, it can't thrive."
The dark-hued video has the look of a trailer for a TTC-themed thriller, but it's actually the opening salvo in transit workers' battle against city hall's plan to contract out maintenance work in the system.
The first step in that fight is a publicity campaign aimed at building public support for the workers. The video, which currently has more than 100,000 hits on Youtube, will also be shown in cinemas starting this week. In addition, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 is putting up placards around the system, launching a website – www.protectingwhatmatters.ca – and running draws for free Metropasses.
"Our maintenance workers are the biggest secret in Toronto," union president Bob Kinnear said Tuesday. "We have people out there working every night, and people don't know that."
The 3,500 maintenance employees include cleaning staff, mechanics and crews that fix streetcar track. Their jobs can be deadly at times: last month, 49-year-old Peter Pavlovski was hit by a train and killed while working in a subway tunnel.
Last month, the commission voted to farm out 150 bus-cleaning jobs to save money.
So far, the ATU has not announced what other steps it will take to fight contracting out. Mr. Kinnear said the union is still holding meetings with members to decide what to do. However, he said the ATU wants to avoid inconveniencing riders.
He said the purpose of the publicity campaign was also to change the tenor of the debate and push politicians to put more money into the system, rather than simply hiking fares.
"Politicians talk about the TTC as a cost. But the reality is, it's an investment in the city: you improve your social well-being and environmental well-being by investing in transit," he said, pointing to Toronto Board of Trade data that shows gridlock costs the city's economy every year because of lost productivity. Other figures show the TTC is better than other major North American transit systems at paying its way through fares, and has a lower operating subsidy than cities like New York and Chicago.
The video has a similar look to a Danish advertisement that went viral online this summer. That 90-second spot, for public transit system Midttrafik, satirizes car commericals by portraying a bus as a sleek, sexy ride. While the ATU ad has a more serious tone, its premise – that public transit is cool – is the same.