WINNIPEG (Canadian OH&S News)
Passengers on Winnipeg’s public transit lines are becoming increasingly hostile, taking their anger out on bus drivers, say labour groups in the city.
In a recent meeting with the city’s infrastructure and public works committee, Local 1505 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Winnipeg Labour Council presented a report showing assaults on bus drivers in the Manitoba capital have almost quadrupled from 2005.
In 2011, 63 bus drivers reported being assaulted, compared to only 17 in 2005, the union reports. In the first three months of this year, assaults are on pace to greatly exceed the 2009 high of 70, with 23 already recorded through March.
“There’s disrespect for bus drivers and transit operators in general. Every transit operator I’ve talked to who has been on for more than 20 years has said that there isn’t a lot of respect for the work they do anymore,” says Dave Sauer, president of the Winnipeg Labour Council, adding those numbers are probably low because many assaults go unreported as drivers may not think there will be any repercussions.
Less than 20 per cent of all assaults since 2005 have resulted in arrests, and 70 per cent of those arrests resulted in the assailant being charged, the union’s report shows. “We try to convince the operator, in all cases, to file charges,” says Jim Girden, president of the transit union.
The union and the council are calling for a two-pronged strategy to protect workers that would see, at the federal level, increased penalties for those convicted of assaulting a transit operator, and on a more local level, increased security on the buses and posting photos of the assailants to act as a deterrent and help police identify them.
Sauer says this could include police officers, a special constabulary force specific to the transit system or police trainees who already patrol downtown. Shields for the drivers have been discussed, he says, but there have been issues with drivers feeling trapped behind them.
Girden says the situation has become much worse since he was driving buses. “It used to be on certain runs and areas of the city but it’s now blossomed off all over the city right now,” he says. “It’s right across the country, it’s a significant issue and things are getting worse.”
The report says that most assaults are caused by disputes over fare payments, which Sauer says has led to drivers not contesting passengers when they do not pay the correct amount or refuse to pay at all.
The most common assault is when a driver is spat on, Girden says. “We want to have a safe environment for the operators but we also want it to be safe for the customers because it encourages the customers, our clients, to ride the bus more and they should feel safe,” he adds.
The call for stiffer penalties against those who assault transit operators has faced an uphill battle in Parliament. British Columbia MP Peter Julian introduced a private member’s bill in late February that would increase penalties for assaulting a transit operator while at work, but he had also introduced similar bills in 2007 and 2009 as well that did not pass first reading.
A motion from Councillor Brian Mayes to give Winnipeg Transit, the ATU and the Winnipeg Police Service 120 days to produce a report with suggestions to enhance bus driver safety was passed by the infrastructure and public works committee at the meeting.