Last month’s abrupt departure of HSR General Manager of Transit, Murray Hill and the retirement of Scheduling Manager Jim Dahlms has Amalgamated Transit Union boss Eric Tuck predicting uncertainty ahead in HSR labour relations. The two senior managers left HSR just a few months after Debbie Dalle Vedove was hired from Oakville Transit as HSR Transit Director replacing David Dixon who departed last summer. Dixon had recruited Murray Hill and union boss Tuck thinks that had something to do with Hill’s departure. “Murray and Dixon had really improved the culture around here for the drivers, and maybe they got along too well with our members,” Tuck said. In an interview with the Bay Observer last year Dixon said one of his first big tasks at HSR was to try to improve the decades-old toxic relationship between the HSR and its Drivers’ union. Dixon implemented a series of policies that recognized the bus driver as the primary point of contact with the public, and he reoriented the operation to support the driver through route alignments and ensuring the vehicles were in proper running order. Tuck said Hill in his role overseeing the operators, could often be seen at the garage at 4:30 in the morning when the drivers started their shifts.
ATU President Eric Tuck says he is hearing rumblings from his members but so far has not seen significant change in labour management relations, although, he added, his members have started filing more grievances. An email from an anonymous HSR employee circulated to council and the media alleges that the new transit boss, Vedove has been seen publicly dressing down drivers. “The new Transit Director has shown herself to be pervasive, controlling and systemically unprofessional in her treatment of HSR drivers,” the email charged. The email went on to say that Vedove’s support for LRT might have been a factor in her hiring. In response to a request for comment Vedove wrote, “My main focus right now is customer service – I want to ensure our customers have the best experience riding the bus and that our operators are providing safe, on-time and courteous service to each passenger. While I’ve only been with the City a short time, it’s very clear to me that there are a lot of really hard working, dedicated staff who work for HSR, and who I know are committed to improving transit in this city, just like I am. …We’re currently working on reviewing our strengths and weaknesses, growing as a department, and ultimately providing an outstanding experience for our customers, every time they ride the bus. All of this is pinned on continuous improvement – which I think is essential in successfully operating an organization like this one.”
Dixon’s departure, while voluntary, was widely seen to be in part because of his open skepticism of the viability of LRT in Hamilton. When Dixon unveiled a comprehensive city-wide 10-year transit plan that largely omitted LRT, Mayor Eisenberger expressed his surprise and displeasure, although council eventually endorsed the plan. The plan was quickly thrown into limbo when the province announced funding for LRT but none for the Dixon plan.
For his part Eric Tuck says there are too many unanswered questions about LRT. He worries about the project being let out to a third party operator, depriving HSR of the revenue from some of its most lucrative routes. “LRT must be operated and controlled by HSR or transit will suffer,” he said, adding that there is a lack of overall focus on building transit city wide. “Right now transit is floundering,” he said. A recent HSR budget submission to council showed ridership in 2016 down about 400,000 riders, reflecting a trend seen in municipal transit systems across the province. In a recent council discussion on the subject of absenteeism and overtime, the HSR was identified as an area of concern. Tuck says Drivers are increasingly suffering from stress-related health issues, and an ever more confrontational and even violent ridership. “Our drivers have to endure stresses and dangerous passengers like never before,” he told the Bay Observer.