Keeping Transit Public in the Age of Austerity

Editors introduction: This is the first article in a two-part series by Blake McCall, a Hamilton bus operator, and Caitlin Craven, a member of CUPW Local 548 and organizer with Hamilton’s Fight for $15 and Fairness. In this first article, McCall and Craven take a look at the big picture of campaigns against privatization and argue it is time to bring them together in a fight against the root problem of austerity. In tomorrow’s article, they examine how underfunding has severely damaged Hamilton’s transit system in recent decades and worsened working conditions.


by Blake McCall and Caitlin Craven

Since launching the Keep Transit Public campaign, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has focused attention on the failures of privatization in the public sector and countered the common line that private companies manage services better.  Following on other anti-privatization campaigns springing up across the province and country (Hydro, long-term care, education) ATU has couched its argument in the economic language of efficiency.  This includes pointing to the costs of privatization and arguing that a public transit system will be cheaper in the long-run and secure ‘good’ jobs for workers.

rally photoTargeting privatization on these terms is necessary, but with so many anti-privatization campaigns we can and should use bigger and bolder language to unite them. This is the moment we need to be talking about the politics of austerity, the root of what we’re facing, and how we can can broaden our fight back.

There is no evidence that privatization works

The problems with privatization are legion, and have been documented extensively by academics, unions, and even government sources.  The Auditor General of Ontario has shown that privatization schemes have led to massive cost-increases for services and burdened taxpayers.  Specifically when it comes to transit, there isn’t a single example of a privatization scheme that has resulted in cheaper, more efficient, or better service.

The VIVA Rapid Bus System in York Region, which is privatized, has the highest per person fare ($4.40/trip) in Ontario as well as the highest municipal contribution ($4.49/rider) to a system[1].

ATU is challenging a similar scheme to have the proposed Hamilton Light Rail Transit (LRT) run by a private corporation instead of the Hamilton Street Rail (HSR), pointing to the likelihood of higher fares and rising costs.  Beyond the fact that a non-HSR run LRT would create two tiers of workers, with those working in LRT likely facing worse conditions, the City of Hamilton would have little control over the revenues made off increased LRT fares, and be restricted in its ability to deal with any problems.

19956729_1876843705914096_2013874181306890514_oThere is no evidence that privatization works. ATU’s campaign has pointed out the problems clearly and directly, but that’s not the whole story.

The age of austerity

It may seem odd to say Ontario Government’s $1 billion in funding for Hamilton’s LRT is a form of austerity.  It is the single largest investment in the city’s transit infrastructure.  Yet it is all about the austerity agenda, not just a who runs the LRT.

When we talk about privatization, we tend to focus on the moment of handing over control to profit-seeking companies.  But for public services like transit, privatization is really the end goal of austerity.  Privatization is on the agenda after years of funding cuts, service cuts, and pressure on workers and service users to accept and expect less.  Just avoiding private ownership is not enough.

As workers in the labour movement, we need a vision for winning properly funded transit that goes beyond the immediate struggle.  The services aren’t going to get better by maintaining the status quo and the work is always going to remain open to being farmed out in the future.  If we want to keep transit public and we want transit to be better – more frequent service, better and more bus lines, more accessibility – we actually need to address the years of under-funding caused by neoliberal politics.


Underfunding is not the result of difficult times and limited resources. The crisis of public finance is the product of decisions to continually reduce taxes on the rich and corporations, and simultaneously channel enormous subsidies in the form of P3 contracts to those same corporations.

Privatizing LRT is a piece within this larger puzzle – a puzzle that is not, it turns out, so difficult to put together.  Thirty years of caving to the interests of multinational corporations, many of which are deeply entangled with political leaders and their advisors, has left public services barely functioning.  When users get frustrated enough, the government of the day promises to do something.  But because their ability to fund meaningful projects has been so weakened, they begin the dance of arguing that the problem with our services is a lack of efficiency rather than a lack of funding, justifying the turn to private companies.

This is precisely what the Wynne government has done with public transit infrastructure spending in Ontario, and exactly why we need to demand funding instead of pleading that public entities can do it cheaper.

Fighting privatization, fighting austerity

Incorporating an anti-austerity politics into anti-privatization campaigns also allows us to broaden our understanding of all the ways privatization is happening.  Public transit becomes inaccessible for many reasons, the largest of which are fare hikes and increased user fees.  The effect of fare hikes is to push people who most need it out of the system.  This is a clear form of privatization for the way that it transfers funding for a service from a collective responsibility on to the shoulders of individuals.

Unlike public healthcare debates, where resistance to pay-for-services care has more readily highlighted the connection to underfunding, in transit there is an assumption that paying for the system has to come from individual users and the only way to raise more funding is to raise the cost.  But, fare hikes have happened across systems in Ontario at precisely the same time that governments have made the political choice to give massive tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, thereby strapping provincial funding transfers to municipalities.  Essentially, systems are starved and the burden is placed on individuals because governments refuse to find the funding.

If we just argue for protecting the public system against private ownership, we open the door for continued attacks on users and on the larger right to the city.  Public transit can serve the purpose of providing access for all people to the city, but it doesn’t.  This is because of high costs, the length of time it takes to get from one place to another, limited accessible spaces, and the fact that many places are completely unserviced. We shouldn’t be satisfied with just making sure a system that fails so many remains in the hands of public entities.  Instead, let’s put forward a vision for an equitable and just transit system, fully funded by taxing the rich, that can serve the working class by reducing (or eliminating) user fees.



[1] Municipal contribution refers to how much public money the city contributes to the operations budget of the transit system (here calculated per rider).

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