Loyalty, teamwork, compassion, credibility and accountability: those are the fundamental characteristics that best describe ATU Canada – the country’s oldest, largest and most successful transit union.
Based in Toronto, ATU Canada has roots in the United States, where the Amalgamated Transit Union began as a labour organization in 1892 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Canadian Council was launched in 1982 and then in 2015 there was a transition into what is now ATU Canada, which has about 34,000 ATU transit member professionals in nine provinces across 40 locals from coast to coast.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with ATU Canada President John Di Nino from his office in Toronto. Di Nino is a shining example of how hard work and dedication are the main ingredients to a successful career after being elected into the position on July 26, 2018.
Di Nino started his career in 1986 with the Toronto Transit Commission as a subway cleaner at the age of 19. Two years later he became a steward for the ATU. He served 15 years as a union steward before taking a full-time position at the executive level with his previous local, ATU Local 113 in Toronto.
“I became an executive board member in 2010 until I transitioned into the presidency in 2018,” begins Di Nino. “The ATU has been very instrumental in helping to mold me to be able to undertake this kind of role. They have extensive training that is run throughout Canada and the U.S.”
Ontario comprises about half of the entire ATU Canada membership across the country, with Di Nino’s former Local 113 in Toronto being the largest, but he is quick to point out that every local is just as important as another, regardless of size. The union represents members across Canada from as far west as Port Alberni, British Columbia right out to St. John’s, Newfoundland on the east coast.
“I made a commitment when I was elected that I was going to travel the country and reengage ATU Canada with our members and conversely have our membership reengage with us,” emphasizes Di Nino.
Visibility, participation and providing training are always at the forefront of ATU Canada’s mandate. In the short period of time since Di Nino has been at the helm, ATU Canada has provided enhanced training to 24 different locals from Vancouver to Halifax.
“We have trained hundreds of people on how to be effective stewards and what their roles look like. We are travelling extensively across Canada at the moment,” he confirms.
Safety and Training
A fundamental aspect of ATU Canada’s training exercises is reaffirming the commitment and polices in place across the country with Occupational and Safety Acts. The Acts vary marginally from province to province but the protectionary intent for all workers is generic.
“We are looking at many different things in terms of safety including driver shields and barriers and ergonomic issues in the operation of the buses and the driver’s compartment area. They all impact upon safety-related issues,” says Di Nino.
Di Nino points to a pilot project in Winnipeg that he believes will be a template for the rest of Canada. It’s called The Main Street Project and originates from the drivers’ perspective and the best methods on how to deescalate and engage with people who are dealing with dependency issues.
“It is a great program that educates our people and gives them the tools on how to deal with passengers who get on the bus who are under the influence or dealing with dependency issues. It’s something we’re going to be pushing for across the country,” states Di Nino.
Many of ATU Canada’s 34,000 members are public transit operators, but there are also emergency medical services, clerical, and other personnel.
“We have transit operators and an extensive maintenance staff. We do the clerical and dispatching work and also have station collectors, although that is transitioning especially here in Ontario with the introduction of Presto. We also have IT procurement staff that work for us along with a procurement department. The only real diverse segment that we have in ATU Canada is the Canadian Mint,” notes Di Nino.
Even prior to entering the role as president, Di Nino was examining how technological change was going to affect day-to-day maintenance and operations and by extension the impact it could potentially have on ATU’s workforce. The introduction of the Presto tap-and-go fare system is changing the dynamics for the workers who collect fares, service the stations and who fix and load the machines – including pass vending machines. Di Nino also recognizes that autonomous vehicles will also impact membership. The key is to be out in front of it all and explore new ways of staying relevant and preserving jobs.
“What we need to start doing is be forward-thinking and look at how we can adapt technological change into our daily operations and how we can diversify to keep our members employed. That may be through having workers acquire new skillsets,” responds Di Nino.
As president of the Canadian operations, Di Nino finds himself in Silver Spring, Maryland on a monthly basis where ATU holds its general executive board meetings. Although he does not sit on the general executive board for the International, he attends the general executive board meetings.
“We run extensive and continuous training programs at the center and it’s not just for someone like myself; it’s also for rank-and-file members and officers and stewards from all locals,” he notes.
As the leader of a sizable union, a significant amount of Di Nino’s day is spent dealing with government officials at both the provincial and federal levels. In fact, he says those types of activities would likely account for about 80% of his time.
“We’re dealing with the cannabis issue and we are seguing into a national campaign on transit going into the next federal election. We were in Ottawa last November where we met more than 35 MPs. We’ve met with mayors and city councils and have been sitting in on transit board meetings across the country,” he says.
Di Nino believes that the fundamental objectives of unions have not strayed throughout the decades and that the core issues remain the same. It’s about sticking to principles and fighting to protect the rights of workers and optimizing and maximizing their workplace opportunities.
“I think what has changed is the political landscape and it’s made our challenge more difficult. Now we have a government in Ontario that wants to upload the subway system and change it from being a public entity and take it back to the private sector. We’re seeing more of this right across the country,” laments Di Nino.
From the labour perspective, Di Nino says it’s important to get back to old-fashioned grassroots organizing. It means rebuilding power in the community and working to reunite with transit rider groups including religious organizations, seniors and youth.
“If you look at our 100 years of expertise in the transit business I am proud to say that ATU is and providing some of the best opportunities in terms of education for its members. We’re giving opportunities for good-paying jobs and benefits with pension plans and a long-sustaining career,” Di Nino proudly says.
Di Nino says he is exceptionally proud of his members and their commitment to their respective communities. Some locals, such as Local 113 where Di Nino began, does a big push each year in support of Multiple Sclerosis research. Each chapter has the option to become involved with various groups within their own community. Any extra work is always appreciated, especially when considering many ATU Canada members are often on the job anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day, in what is often very poor weather conditions.
“Our professionals do their due diligence and put every effort into delivering excellent customer service. That is every bit as important as volunteering. They ensure people get to where they need to go and get them there safely,” says Di Nino.
Looking to the Future
A fundamental task being addressed by ATU Canada is dealing with gender and equity equality within the transit movements. The union has hired two organizers that are working with Di Nino on a national level. The first initiative is to reengage with all the members to determine where the strengths and weaknesses are located, and from that develop a campaign for unity.
“We are moving into a national campaign for the next federal election and are targeting a national transit strategy, which must include dedicated operational funding for transit,” says Di Nino.
Privatization of services is always a source for concern, and rightfully so. One need only look at what happened in western Canada with the exodus of Greyhound. Brandon, Manitoba had the same issue where private-sector transit got up and walked away and left thousands of people stranded without adequate transportation. With the exodus of Greyhound there were more than 2 million riders who were left stranded – most of them in northern Canada and often within the Indigenous communities.
“Those vehicles were not only moving passengers,” explains Di Nino. “They were moving medical supplies and lifelines to those northern and remote communities including blood and blood byproducts from the Red Cross and that is all gone. There has been no forward thinking on how to address that issue.”
According to Di Nino, no level of government has talked about how transit will be supported in the coming years. Infrastructure Canada has committed to investing $28.7 billion over the next 10 years in the provinces to be invested in the development and maintenance of transit through capital expenditures. However, zero dollars of that money is going to be on the operations end.
“The problem that we’re seeing is that they (government) want to maintain and build new infrastructure but nobody is talking about how they are going to operate those vehicles and the services in and out of those facilities,” says Di Nino.
Succession planning is another matter that Di Nino wants to bring to the table to discuss along with talks of privatizing such services as buses, streetcars and subways, which he says leads only to private consortiums caring about one thing – profit margins. In such instances, private contracts can be as short as five years, which means requests for proposals can, and often do, happen regularly and different companies come in and take over resulting in absolutely no continuity for the public, which becomes a huge source of frustration.
Through it all, Di Nino aspires to see that ATU Canada is recognized as the leading professional in the transit industry in this country. While there are larger unions, they all have portfolios that cross a number of different sectors. For ATU, it’s all about transit.
“ATU Canada wants to be recognized as a stakeholder and that when decisions are being made nationally and provincially in terms of what transit is going to look like, how infrastructure is going to be designed and how we’re going to deliver a safe, reliable, affordable service to the people we move across this country,” concludes Di Nino.