What’s Left, Toronto? Part Four

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Taraneh Zarin is a graduate student at the University of Toronto and active in the Free Transit Toronto movement. She spoke about the primary aim of that movement as the abolition of fares for public transit. The abolition of fares would permit the racialized poor the same access to mobility as those wealthier inhabitants of Toronto. Ms. Zarin argues that this is unfair.

It would also limit climate change by reducing the carbon imprint and would reduce the experience of gridlock which characterizes Toronto (like many other capitalist cities). It would, on th one hand, eliminate the need for transit fare officers, who often harass the poor by obliging them to show proof of payment (and, if found guilty, are fined $200); on the other, it would eliminate the need for expensive fare systems (such as the recent switch to the Presto card system, which has now cost $1 billion).

If free public transit were available, there would undoubtedly be a surge in ridership. Indeed, Mayor John Tory’s decision to eliminate fares for children under 12 years old led to the doubling of ridership, from 11 million to 22 million in 2016. Hence, if free public transit were available to all, we could expect an even larger increase in ridership. Hence, it would be necessary to expand public transit infrastructure.

Ms. Zarin justifies her call for free public transit because it is unfair for some with more money to have greater power to be mobile than others.

What must be asked is: How is the call for free public transit a reform that may lead to challenging the class power of employers? The answer is: It is unlikely to lead to a challenge to the class power of employers by itself. It is a reform that is consistent with the power of employers (although the extent to which it is consistent is probably dependent on the specific circumstances of each city/region/country).

For example, as Ms. Zarin points out, free public transit exists in Tallinn, Estonia and that it is being extended to the whole country. This move has certainly not challenged the power of employers in Estonia. One analysis of Estonia characterizes it thus (M. Feldman(2017). Crisis and opportunity: varieties of capitalism and
varieties of crisis responses in Estonia and Slovenia. European Journal of
Industrial Relations, 23(1), page 7):

Estonia has been characterised as a liberal market economy with decentralized market institutions (Feldmann, 2013b) and a very limited role for social dialogue or wage bargaining (which tends to occur mostly at the firm level). Estonia has also consistently had one of the most open economies, and its state has been described as pursuing a neoliberal version of capitalism with a small welfare state (Bohle and Greskovits, 2012).

In relation to industrial relations and the market for workers, the same author comments (page 8):

Estonia has decentralised industrial relations, incl. the lowest unionisation rate amongst the new member states and relatively low collective bargaining coverage. As in most of Central and Eastern Europe, the company level is the primary bargaining level in Estonia, with the transport and energy sectors being the most successful examples of social dialogue and collective agreements at the sectoral level (Espenberg and Vahaste, 2012: 32-3). In addition, there have also been a few social pacts at the national level, usually when the Social Democrats (until 2004 known as the Moderates) have been part of the government (Vare and Taliga, 2002).

As can be seen, free public transit as a policy need not conflict with the class power of employers.

One of the reasons why Estonia has been able to implement free public transit is the heavy subsidies that this sector already received before the implementation of the policy–something which Ms. Zarin fails to mention (from Estonia Will Roll Out Free Public Transit Nationwide):

Why is Estonia going so big on free transit now? At its root, this is a form of fiscal redistribution.

That’s because Estonia’s public transit already gets extremely generous subsidies. The state-owned railway operator Elron, for example, will get a €31 million boost from taxpayers next year. The rural bus routes due to go free, meanwhile, are already subsidized to up to 80 percent of cost as it is. Making them entirely fare-less should only cost around €12.9 million ($15.2 million) more—not a vast amount for even a small country such as Estonia.

Getting rid of ticket sales and inspections, meanwhile, will eliminate some overhead—and also cut down on delays. I couldn’t turn up any figures on the actual cost of charging for Estonian bus travel, but on larger, more complex networks such as New York’s MTA, it can reach 6 percent of all budget. When only 20 percent of the bus network’s costs are being recouped from fares, it’s easy to see how maintaining a ticket sale and inspection system can come to seem like a burden worth shedding.

As Ms. Zarin admits, the largest part of the operating budget for the TTC comes from fares, so the implementation of free public transit in Toronto would likely encounter much more resistance from the municipal and provincial governments. This implies that such a reform has more potential for challenging the power of employers than is the case in Tallinn, but in itself it is unlikely to constitute a major challenge since other cities and capitalist countries besides Tallinn and Estonia are either contemplating implementing free public transit or have already done so.

Dunkirk, France (population around 200,000), introduced free public transit, several cities throughout the world have also done so, and some European cities are contemplating it (from ‘I leave the car at home’: how free buses are revolutionising one French city):

Free urban transport is spreading. In his research Wojciech Keblowski, an expert on urban research at Brussels Free University, says that in 2017 there were 99 fare-free public transport networks around the world: 57 in Europe, 27 in North America, 11 in South America, 3 in China and one in Australia. Many are smaller than Dunkirk and offer free transit limited to certain times, routes and people.

In February this year, Germany announced it was planning to trial free public transport in five cities – including the former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim. In June this was downgraded to a slashing of public transport fares to persuade people to ditch cars.

The largest in the world is in Changning , in China’s Hunan province, where free transit has been in operation since 2008. Passenger numbers reportedly jumped by 60% on the day it was introduced.

A study into free public transport by online journal Metropolitics found an increase in mobility among older and younger people, and an increased sense of freedom

It cannot be said, then, that this proposal of free public transit is radical since it does not generally question the power of employers as a class.

Should such a policy be supported by the radical left? Yes–but with the necessary condition that any attempt to claim that this is somehow radical or revolutionary should be criticized. Life may be enhanced through free public transit immediately for the poorer sections of the working class and, in the medium to long term, environmental conditions may improve.

A further aspect should be considered–about which Ms. Zarin was silent. What about the Estonian bus drivers? Even with free public transit, bus drivers are still used as means–as things–to ends over which they have very limited say (for a general view, see in general The Money Circuit of Capital). Furthermore, strikes have occurred in Estonia by bus drivers due to relatively low wages when compared to workers in Helsinki) (see Bus drivers to hold warning strike in 3 Estonian regions  and Helsinki and Tallinn compete over bus drivers). Ms. Zarin completely neglects to look at working conditions in Estonia in general and the working conditions of bus drivers in Estonia in particular.

Should the reformist left present this policy as somehow “fair” or “just,” then it should be criticized. Just as free public healthcare can make life more livable for the working class (as it does in Canada), so too can free public transit. That would not change the general tenor of life in Canada–unless a movement towards free public transit were linked to a movement towards challenging the power of employers as a class.

So far in this series, there has really been no discussion of radical politics. Up to now, all discussion and proposals fail to challenge the power of employers as a class–a typical social-reformist left tactic of presenting what is not in fact radical as something essentially radical.