Organizing to Save #Our Subway

There has never been a time when the fight for public transit has been more urgent and central to the public good. A rising tide of riders are demanding reliable, affordable transit to get to jobs, school, medical care and community activities. At the same time, climate scientists warn that we have we have only 12 years to prevent a climate change catastrophe.

Carrying on President Larry Hanley’s commitment to building grassroots coalitions, this year’s CanAm Conference in Boston, Mass will put the spotlight on organizing. “Larry understood that the very existence of mass transit depended on those riders who most depended on it... Larry acted and preached to ATU members that mobilizing the support of riders and the community were key to the union’s future success—not just traditional political action. In other words, the union was bargaining not just for its members but for the collective good.”[1]

This year’s conference will build on lessons learned at the 2018 CanAm in Kelowna, BC where we heard powerful stories from US locals trained to fight the impact of the ‘right to work’ Janus decision. The conference featured workshops on digital campaigning in Winnepeg and Toronto’s Keep Transit Public campaign. ATU members learned that action is like oxygen to a local union.  When the union is active and when it is working on issues both inside and outside the workplace that address key concerns of the members, the union is stronger.

The skills we gained at the 2018 Can-Am have carried Toronto’s Local 113 through a difficult year of campaigning. In June 2018, the province elected a Conservative government that put our union and public transit directly in its sights. Premier Ford’s government has slashed urgently needed funding promised to the Toronto Transit Commission and introduced legislation giving the Province sweeping powers to take over – and sell off - parts of the Toronto transit system. This is a serious threat to our jobs, our pensions and the future of public transit in Toronto.

ATU 113 has built a successful Keep Transit Public team of rank and file members. Over the past year and a half, the work of KTP has raised ATU’s profile in the community and among politicians; encouraged members to volunteer in political campaigns, brought rank and file members to City Council, Metrolinx and TTC Commission meetings; taken the discussion of issues to the shop floor and trained members to meet with politicians at all levels.

Since last fall, ATU has been working with a coalition of the Labour Council, TTC Riders, Toronto Environmental Alliance, community and student groups. The coalition has held three very successful days of action where upwards of 35 subway stations have been canvased during morning rush hour, followed by a press conference. ATU 113 did a T-shirt action to coincide with the days of action, with all members asked to wear Don’t Steal our Subway/Save our Subway t-shirts over their uniforms. Despite employer warnings that this would lead to discipline, none was taken.

But we still have a long way to go to stop the Province’s plans to sell off #OUR subway. It will be crucial to use the full power of our membership to build public support. With the help of ATU International, we designed a pledge card that asked members to commit to doing something specific, however small. We’ve been able to pinpoint the request for volunteers much more accurately, especially using our post-coded membership list showing which wards/ridings members live in. Responses have helped us to offer members specific opportunities to act – to meet their local politician, contact a group they are part of or bring people to a rally or event.

Slowly, we are also reaching out to the wider community through our members’ affiliations. Along with TTC Riders, we recently held a Tamil press conference, presenting a detailed explanation of our concerns about the Province’s cuts to the Tamil media – in Tamil. One of our own stewards participated, offering a union perspective to his own community.

At this year's Can-Am we will share the struggles and successes of locals across the US and Canada organizing alongside rider and the community for public transit. This is the road we need to travel if we hope to win the fight for publicly owned, operated and maintained transit.

[1] Larry Cohen, In These Times, Larry Hanley Was a Transformational Labor Leader. He Will Be Missed,


Deborah Littman is currently an organizer for the Amalgamated Transit Union International, working with Local 113 in Toronto to strengthen the union by identifying and training new leaders; building wider public support for investment in public transit and helping the local develop alliances with the wider community.  Deborah was formerly Lead Organizer of Metro Vancouver Alliance, a broad-based alliance of over 50 labour, community, educational and faith organizations affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. MVA member organizations worked jointly on issues of common concern, winning commitments from employers, officials and politicians on transit, affordable housing, living wage, community healthcare and social inclusion. Deborah has also been deeply involved in campaigning around low pay and the living wage, helping to launch living wage campaigns in the UK, Canada and New Zealand.