Signal Operators Walk Off Job at Union Station Rail Corridor!

By Daniel Tarade

96 signal operators with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) walked off the job at midnight on Tuesday, Apr. 19. These workers operate and maintain the complicated system of tracks and switches around Toronto Union Station.

I won’t cross their picket line and undoubtedly, other workers will also refuse.

In times of inflation and crisis, these workers are fighting for a fair contract. It’s a fight that all workers benefit from, and we need to support them in this job action.

Despite playing such a critical role at one of the busiest transit hubs in Canada, these workers worked without a contract since 2019. The “public corporation” Metrolinx, which owns the Union Station Rail Corridor and operates GO Transit and UP Express out of Union station, contracts out signal operation and maintenance to Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR). TTR signal operators voted down the most recent tentative agreement in Oct. 2021 and this past March, 95 of 96 workers voted in favour of strike action.

To replace this essential labour, Metrolinx will assign management to this job. To get an idea of how badly this will go, watch this short two-minute video of a Metrolinx manager describing how the manual interlock system works. He seems to have some experience, but it’s clear he’s not intimately familiar with the system and says “this tends to just become second nature after a while.” Well, management will have to learn on the job as 200,000+ people travel through Union station each day.

The Union Station Rail Corridor is approximately 6.4 km long from Bathurst Street to the Don River. It consists of 4 locally controlled interlockings (Cherry, Scott, John and Bathurst) with 13 passenger platforms, 14 station tracks plus 2 bypass tracks, 180 signals, 250 switches, and 40 km of circuited track.

The complicated manually interlocking system, which dates to the 1920s, was initially slated to be replaced with a “modern, state-of-the-art equipment, high-tech Central Control System” by 2019. But by mid-2019, the Deputy City Manager expected “the signal system upgrades in the Union Station Rail Corridor to be complete and operational by the end of 2021.” I cannot find a more recent update, but with the pandemic and a supply chain squeeze, it seems that all rail travelling along the Union Station Rail Corridor, including VIA Rail, UP Express, GO Transit, Amtrak, and freight, will soon depend on the ability of management to master a system that elicited the following retort from retired worker Vito Parisi — “You won’t learn it in one week, or in one month…You never stop learning about it.”

With the recent John Deere strike, we again saw that management is mistaken in its belief that experienced workers are dispensable. Indeed, even Metrolinx representatives can’t bring themselves to promise smooth service, cautioning that their non-unionized replacement workers won’t “eliminate [snarls’ entirely” and predicts issues will get worse the longer the strike goes on.

Solidarity with striking signal operators!