Bus union continues fight against Hamilton’s COVID-19 employee vaccination policy

The union representing HSR staff says it's moving on with arbitration to fight a COVID vaccination verification order. A deadlocked council vote on April 27, 2022 lead to retention of the policy. Global News

The union representing Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) workers says it will continue to challenge Hamilton’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination initiative after the policy was upheld by city councillors on Wednesday.

In a release on Thursday, ATU Local 107 says it will press on with arbitration under Ontario’s Labour Relation Act under section 49 – an action the union undertook in February in response to the city’s mandate for staffers.

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A city staff report recommended suspending the policy in light of the province’s decision to lift vaccine mandates and proof of vaccination requirements.

However, a tie vote (6-6) at a council meeting means the policy will remain in place, and employees not vaccinated against COVID-19 will be terminated. HSR employees are included in the order.

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“I was quite shocked to hear council voted against the staff recommendations,” ATU Local president Eric Tuck told Global News.

“It was not only the staff recommendations, but also the city’s legal recommendations that they proceed with dropping the mandate.”

With Ontario doing away with its COVID-19 vaccine passport system on March 1, based on improving epidemiological data at the time, a number of Hamilton institutions including the Hamilton Police Service, Mohawk College and McMaster University opted to drop mandates for their workers.

Click to play video: 'Ontario lifts COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates in health care, schools'
Ontario lifts COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates in health care, schools

Tuck expected the same would happen for HSR workers, even going as far as informing workers of the impending change via email last week.

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The union boss would apologize to his constituents in a follow-up post on April 28 citing “a derelict of duty” from councillors in not eliminating the order.

Retention of the policy means about 40 HSR members will be affected, according to Tuck, including “difficult to replace” maintenance workers, operators and administrative staff.

In August 2021, Hamilton city council approved its compulsory COVID-19 vaccination verification policy which impacted an estimated 7,500 staffers who either had to get two jabs or submit to twice-weekly rapid tests.

The union is now awaiting the assignment of an arbitrator and hopes for a first hearing 30 days after the appointment.

A City of Hamilton spokesperson says “several” unions, tied to municipal jobs, have either filed grievances in relation to the vaccine policy or have given notice that they intend to do so.

Employee Health and Labour Relations director Matthew Sutcliffe told Global News he expects to reach an agreement with HSR’s union through an arbitrator sometime in May.

“This response by the ATU was anticipated after the outcome reached at Council on April 27,” Sutcliffe said.

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“The ATU has been clear on its position on the policy in our discussions.”

Mayor Fred Eisenberger defended the council vote and a stay of the vaccine mandate suggesting there “still major concerns” around increasing COVID-19 cases in the community.

“There are still major concerns around hospitalization and the stress that it’s creating in the hospital sector and system,” Eisenberger told 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show.

“The bottom line is that the city of Hamilton, as an employer, has a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace.”

City staff estimate as many as ten unions connected to city staffing have filed grievances around the mandate.

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