montreal school bus strike transco

Montreal school bus strike: The human toll of the Transco debacle

Four months into the strike, sources tell us that many children are absent, some parents have lost jobs and even suffered breakups and a number of drivers — who weren’t previously making a living wage — are being forced to turn to food banks.

When Transco’s 350 school bus drivers went on strike for better pay back on Oct. 31, it was unimaginable that four months later, over 15,000 students in Montreal would still be struggling to get to school. Staff at several schools and one school board have told Cult MTL that a number of students have simply been absent, and that there have been dire consequences for parents who have had to make the sacrifice between their careers and their children’s education. 

The students impacted by this strike are from both French and English sectors, attending schools that are part of the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), the Lester B. Pearson School Board, Centres de services scolaires Marguerite-Bourgeoys et de Montréal (CSSMB) and Collège Sainte-Anne.

According to Michel Beaudry, who works in transportation for the CSSMB, “a large number of primary students simply aren’t making it into classrooms due to the lack of transportation available.”

Beaudry pointed to numerous parents’ groups on Facebook featuring posts by Montrealers who report having lost their jobs due to being forced to take their children to school and back every day — an especially time-consuming ordeal for those who don’t drive, significantly digging into work hours while commuting with children via public transit and/or on foot during the winter. Beaudry noted that one couple reportedly filed for divorce after being unable to resolve which parent was going to commit career-suicide by attending to daily drop-offs and pick-ups.

One father in Parc Extension told Cult MTL that he has been spending approximately $1,000 per month on Uber to take his daughter to school and back. The EMSB has committed to compensating parents $7 a day (per child) for most of the days since the strike began.

But why is this all happening?

The actual dispute between Transco and its drivers goes back to 2022, when Quebec decided to subsidize school bus transport companies so that they could top up salaries that were well below the poverty line — which is $25,000 annually for 40 weeks of work. When the drivers went to renew their contracts for 2024, they were informed that Transco would only be willing to negotiate with a fraction of what the company had received from the Quebec government. 

According to a CSN union rep, Transco — which is owned by Swedish investment firm EQT — was able to claw back much of that government money because, when the province made the payouts, they failed to include fine details about how the funds needed to be allocated. 

More data from the CSN reveals that there had been a standstill between both parties throughout November and December of 2023 until Transco came out swinging in early January with a press release to garner support. According to the CSN, however, contacting the media regarding strike negotiations is prohibited while those negotiations are ongoing.

In one press release from Transco, the company accuses the drivers of “preventing safe transportation to students” with their strike, and that the “union’s demands would make it impossible for the company to carry out daily operations. Autobus Transco originally proposed a substantial salary increase. Given that the union continues to make unreasonable and unrealistic demands, in an interest to resolve the outstanding issues and get students back to school safely, this week Transco offered third-party arbitration to the union.” The CSN told Cult MTL that arbitration is not an option because it would force drivers back on the roads immediately without reconciling their demands, stripping drivers of any leverage.

Transco has stated in press releases that Montreal Transco drivers “are paid more than any other drivers in Quebec.” The CSN-led bus drivers’ union countered that by saying that “they only want their fair share,” as what they were offered is below what the IRIS (Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques) has declared was a livable income in Montreal: $32,252 per person. Without a livable wage, the union says that drivers have to go to food banks to survive.

While the latest development in the strike has seen both sides stepping up to meet with Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet, where that will go remains to be seen. Parents are now openly pleading with Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville to intervene.

What the human toll will be on Montreal families after four months of no bus service is something that has yet to be determined. While schools will have records of how many days students have missed, and an idea of the resulting learning loss, at least one school board is also keeping tabs on anecdotal evidence of lost jobs and breakups among parents. Considering all the lost wages among drivers as well, it’s clear that families in the city are in a much worse place now than they were before the strike. ■

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