Transforming Fear to Joy

Winnipeg Transit – From Enraged to Engaged

2011 HRMAM Excellence in Leadership Award

(Front Row Left – Helen Maupin, External Consultant – Right to Joy; Donna MacDonald, Bus Operator; Margaret Patterson, HR Manager; Back Row Left – Randy Tonnellier, Operations Supervisor; Dave Bevan, Bus Operator; Glenna Hellmann, Bus Operator; George Fatourus, Chief Inspector;  Michael Duncan, Bus Operator)

Next time you hop a city bus, you might want to keep in mind that at the recent HRMAM (Human Resources Management Association of Manitoba) 2011 Excellence in Leadership Awards Gala, Winnipeg Transit won a prestigious Organizational Development & Strategic Initiatives Award.  (Winnipeg Sun, March 30, 2011)

Shifting to a Culture of Collaboration

Donna McDonald, Transit Bus Operator
Helen Maupin, Right To Joy

In August 2008, Winnipeg Transit narrowly escaped a strike vote that would have crippled the public transportation system and inconvenienced 130,000 commuters. What could be so wrong in a City of Winnipeg Department that would enrage over 1000 civil servants, namely bus operators? Why would they want to walk a picket line to send City Hall a message and what was their message? To understand the conditions leading up to this scenario, Transit will describe the health/stress factors facing these operators, give an overview of the organizational cultural of Transit, and explain the relationship between the union and its membership.

Job Overview

[1]Although there are many rewards to being a Transit operator, there are also many challenges. Some of these challenges are due to the seniority-based system that determines an operator’s hours of work, vacation time and days off. Other challenges are due to the nature of the job itself. These challenges can impact the operator’s personal and family life. Following is a description of what a new operator may expect:

  • Winnipeg Transit operates 7 days a week, 365 days a year. New operators are required to work weekends and holidays, and days off may not be consecutive or consistent.
  • Though there are buses on the road 24 hours a day, the majority of shifts take place between 5 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. New operators work both day and night shifts, at times changing from one to the other with little notice.
  • Daily work assignments are between 7.5 and 8.5 hours long and are often split shifts consisting of two or three pieces of work and taking more than 12 hours to complete.
  • The new operator can expect to be placed on what is known as the spare board. In this capacity, work assignments can change daily, hourly and, at times, on very short notice. Each operator is guaranteed to work 75 hours biweekly, subject to certain conditions.
  • Each new operator receives three weeks of vacation after the first year; however, the choice of when they can be taken is limited, again by seniority.
  • Weather conditions, construction, traffic, difficult passengers and following a set schedule create daily challenges.
  • Operators work under extremely limited supervision and support.  The supervisor-operator reporting ratio is 1:350 which does not allow for continued coaching and development of the operators.

Health and Safety

[2]“The job of operating public transit vehicles in urban centers may be among the most stressful and unhealthy of modern occupations” say two prominent medical researchers.

Winnipeg Transit is a unique division within city government in that it provides safe and reliable transportation for all types of passengers including commuters to and from work, students, families with small children, seniors, the visually and physically disabled as well as the economically disadvantaged. Some passengers use the service once a week while others rely on it as their main mode of transportation. Consequently, the stressors impacting operators on a daily basis are significant.  Samples of these stressors are listed below:

  • fielding requests from hundreds of passengers a day,
  • driving through heavy traffic while minding traffic signs and rules of the road,
  • watching for bus stop signs,
  • being mindful of running passengers who are late for the bus,
  • attending to cyclists on and off the road,
  • adjusting to changing weather and road conditions, construction and rerouting,
  • dealing with noise on and off the bus as well as with unruly passengers, and
  • being aware of the warning signs when an assault could take place

Transit drivers are required to make split second decisions affecting the lives and safety of other road travelers and passengers riding the bus, all the while adhering to a schedule written to the second of a minute.

Other health and safety concerns are the physical demands of the job. Operators sit for four to eight hours at a time unable to stretch and walk around. Washroom, coffee and lunch breaks, a standard requirement for workers in all jobs, are not incorporated into the drivers’ operating schedule. There are not enough buses or drivers to relieve other operators so they must carry on and finish the shift.[3] As a result, bus drivers frequently report tension, mental overload, fatigue and sleeping problems. They also report more frequent absences from work and for longer durations than workers in other occupations. The greater proportion of work related absences are attributable to stress-related disorders such as digestive problems and anxiety. In addition, bus drivers retire earlier and at a younger age than other civil servants. These early retirements are usually triggered by disability. The main health problems leading to disability are related to the back, tendons and joints, mental illness, and heart and blood vessel disease.

Command and Control Culture

In addition to the day-to-day mental and physical stressors of the drivers’ job, the City of Winnipeg does not provide a supportive culture to help their employees confront and manage these forces. This even greater frustration stems from the command and control culture embedded in Winnipeg Transit since its conception 125 years ago. Transit’s management reward system was built on a seniority scale with years of service being rewarded as opposed to customer service and performance excellence. This reward system still operates.

This culture of entitlement promotes management based on who is next in line and not on who is best suited at coaching and developing the workforce.  When one adds into this mix the supervisor-operator reporting ratio of 1:350, it becomes apparent why efficiency not effectiveness has been the management style of the day.  Although it may seem more efficient to discipline for failure rather to coach for success, these tactics have left the operators feeling blamed for many circumstances beyond their control. What has evolved is an atmosphere of mistrust between operators and management, which is noticeable in the cafeteria where the two sides do not sit together or interact. Ultimately, morale is low for both supervisory and driving staff.

Additional frictions fueling this already combustible situation are the changing values and expectations of society.  When Transit first began operating there were few drivers, all of whom were men. Societal conditions of the day did not call for work- family balance, and fewer operators complained of the long hours and lack of time spent with their children. Today the work force dynamics have shifted. Men and women of all ages and at all stages of their lives are coming to Transit in search of a well-paid career including the benefits a City of Winnipeg position provides. Furthermore, the retiring baby boomer generation has created a shortage of operators, and the younger generations filling those spaces are expecting and demanding more from their employers.

The Relationship between the Union and its Members

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) began to lose the trust of the membership while negotiating the 2008 contract. [4]The union was unable to reach a deal acceptable to operators and in fear of strike action, the ATU Executive members ratified a settlement with the Winnipeg City Council believing the contract did not have to be voted on by the overall membership. The membership was infuriated when they learned of this development. Bus operators felt their voices were not being heard and there was no guarantee management would entertain changing any of their concerns regarding poor working conditions. When members pressed the ATU to research Manitoba Labor Laws around contractual voting, the Executive realized they could not accept the contract without a membership vote. Traditionally, the ATU had always followed their own international by-laws, which are superseded by the Manitoba Labor Laws.  As a result of this oversight, tempers flared and trust in the union eroded.

The City’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was aware of the circumstances brewing inside Transit. The CAO attended mass meetings with the ATU membership and, after listening to their issues, assured drivers that if they accepted the contract, Transit would embark on changing its culture and working conditions. In a letter written to the ATU President, the CAO stated, [5]“While achieving cultural change is a long term endeavor, I am committed to achieving positive change in our workplaces.”) Hope was sparked amongst the union membership and a vote of 57% passed the contract.[6] (See appendices for a copy of letter)

The Intervention

In the fall of 2008 the City of Winnipeg’s Transit System and ATU created a joint committee of union, and management representatives mandated to

  • discuss ways and means of improving working conditions for Bus Operators,
  • improve operating efficiencies within Transit Service, and
  • develop mutually agreed upon recommendations to be referred back to the respective parties for approval

A first action of the this joint body, titled the Working Conditions Committee (WCC) was to engage an external consultant to provide change management and organizational redesign expertise and to conduct five, four-hour focus group sessions. The sessions’ purpose was to consult with operators and controllers regarding their assessment of Transit’s challenges and their suggestions for potential improvements.

The focus groups were designed to empower each small working group to self-organize with a minimum of external control and coordination and to perform productively and harmoniously. To summarize the data gathered, two key themes were identified, mistrust and miscommunication, with the following major challenges falling under these themes,

  • Scheduling,
  • Operator safety and health
  • Leadership/Management style
  • Trust and relationships
  • Communication
  • Resource shortages

[7]The external consultant advised the WCC to view its role as a steering body responsible for enabling continued collaboration among Transit staff, management and the ATU. The WCC was encouraged to:

  1. Ensure it did not become another layer of control and coordination but rather involved bus operators in the research and implementation necessary to achieve the desired improvements for Transit.
  2. Ensure those doing the work take responsibility for coordinating and controlling it, thus redesigning it.
  3. Provide the knowledge, experience and tools for staff to redesign their own work and to make their own choices without imposing a design on them.
  4. Provide Results-centered Leadership development and coaching for Transit managers as well as ATU executives to ensure consistency and continuity in defining and implementing Transit’s new leadership culture.
  5. Design a joint management-union change process and action plan that improves operating relationships and efficiencies within the whole of Transit service.

Including All Stakeholders

The final choice of members to the WCC needed to represent all stakeholders. Management and union appointed their own representatives but how to choose 7 employee representatives from over 1000 drivers presented a more challenging task. Management agreed that in order for the operators to accept these seven employees, the selection process and decision needed to come from the employee body. The WCC provided minimal selection criteria, and a bulletin was posted asking for interested drivers to   e-mail their name to an on-line voting list. The names were grouped into three seniority categories and two minority groups to ensure equitable representation. Those on the list voted for one person in each category. The driver with the highest vote in each category was appointed to the WCC.[8] (See appendices for voting list example)

The WCC members were divided into four committees – a Steering Committee (SC) and three working task groups aligned with the previously identified priorities: Union, Management and Employee Relations (U&ME); Health and Safety; and Scheduling. The SC consisted of two managers, two ATU representatives, four employees, one internal and one external facilitator.  Its’ mandate was to oversee all WCC initiatives using three minimal critical specifications or decision-making criteria for redesign. They were:

  1. Improve customer service
  2. Improve working conditions
  3. Improve operational efficiencies

The following stakeholder approval process was also developed. Task Groups would ensure all stakeholders were consulted and agreed on the recommendation before it was brought forward to the SC. If resistance still existed, then further investigation and communication would take place.  The SC would then hear the recommendation, ensure it met all three critical specifications and approve its implementation. Recommendations from the WCC were rolled out in the form of a vote by membership, a Letter of Understanding by Management and Union, or an employee consultation process.

Readiness for Change

There were many challenges facing the WCC. When replacing the “hierarchy” with any self-directed team, it is important to remember that people don’t start out knowing how to work in teams. Old behaviors and beliefs still exist within the individual. Everyone has to be trained in team skills and commitment must exist from the top of the organization down. Beginning with smaller issues the WCC began to tackle the command and control culture of Transit. There were success and failures, but with every mistake came the opportunity to increase competence[9]. Overtime the task groups became cohesive and trusting. As the larger issues were tackled there was a good foundation to help work through the contentious topics.

U&ME Task Group

One of the bigger issues facing the WCC was rebuilding employees’ trust in both management and union. Poor communication, disconnected relationships and bullying were reported from both union and management. With two vacant Operation Supervisor positions and the 1:350 reporting ratio, drivers were socially isolated and unable to develop the trusting relationships necessary for harmony and productivity to thrive. Alternating acting supervisors would frequent these two vacant offices and interpersonal styles and behaviors determined how issues were managed. With such major concerns, the following two immediate actions were deemed necessary – a fourth position was added and a new hiring process was developed with input from the union and bus operators. A new selection process was designed based on the identified competencies and three new supervisors were hired. Transit history was made when two of the three successful candidates were women selected over their own Operation Supervisors. This effort effectively shattered both the “glass ceiling” and the entitlement culture supporting male seniority.  (See appendices for Supervisor Selection process)

In addition to a new management style being implemented, a monthly draw, “So You Think You Can Drive?” was developed to help bridge the mistrust between drivers, management and the ATU. Drivers would win up to four hours of their shift off and they would choose a qualified management or ATU representative, to fill their shift. This has proven to be an exciting and revealing way to re-engage drivers, managers and the ATU.

Faced with its second largest challenge, U&ME attempted to redesign the flow of information through the organization. Communicating to over 1000 operators and hundreds of other Transit employees in many departments requires multiple resources and methods. When an organization runs on a 0:00-26:00 hour clock, the time barriers are astronomical. An intranet is being developed to provide one source of accurate and up-to-date information, but many operators do not frequent the garage during the day to use a work computer or to read a bulletin. Unfortunately, for some, the grapevine becomes the main source of communication. The WCC developed procedures on how new information is communicated, but people are still missed.  A WCC Communications Task Group was integrated into a Communications and Planning Committee (CPC) already active in Transit. By utilizing this combined expertise, the CPC will develop new procedures and improve existing systems.

Health and Safety Task Group

The Health and Safety task group, in collaboration with Winnipeg Fire and Ambulance, has successfully implemented a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program that was shelved for many years. CISM gives drivers immediate access to peer support after a serious or tragic incident. [10]The goals of the Manitoba CISM Network are to:

  1. educate individuals about stress reactions and ways of coping adaptively with them;
  2. instill messages about the normality of reactions to critical incidents;
  3. promote emotional processing and sharing of the event;
  4. provide information about, and opportunity for, further trauma-related intervention if it is requested by the participant;
  5. develop and provide peer and family understanding and support to the individuals;
  6. develop stress reduction techniques, and help re-establish a sense of control, mastery and empowerment

Other important initiatives include an assault prevention course, hot water added to the on-street washroom facilities, confidential codes from control when police are searching for suspects and active research on spit shields.

Scheduling Task Group

The day-off system, run times, and scheduling have been major sources of stress for drivers. The scheduling department asks for the least amount of driver input but has the greatest amount of impact on the drivers’ daily routine. The WCC engaged the department’s help in developing new processes for problematic runs, and in researching and designing four new day-off scenarios for drivers to consider. For the first time in Transit, consultation workshops will empower 650 drivers with the knowledge and self- managed process necessary to build consensus around their preferred scenario. The consultation workshops engage the drivers in dialogue and learning allowing them to become experts on their workplace.[11]By sharing information in this way, people come to understand the current situation in clear terms. An additional benefit is that trust begins to build throughout the organization and to break down hierarchical thinking. In turn, drivers become more responsible and accountable for outcomes. The process also encourages visioning amongst employees, management and union. Research supports that choices jointly made with employees have more commitment and acceptance; therefore, implementation is swifter and more successful. [12]


In order to continue learning and create change, organizations must first unlearn old behaviors and let go of undesirable processes that no longer work. It is very easy to slip back into comfortable old habits. Often new problems facing organizations are unfamiliar and cannot be categorized the same way as those in the past.  The overwhelming tendency is to treat a wide range of problems with the same solution. Old behaviors must be unlearned and replaced with those that are desired.  Once desired behaviors and processes are identified they must be repeatedly learned. By repeating the desired behavior over and over it becomes the familiar and comfortable.  Using the new collaboration tools and resources available, Transit management, union and employees must continue to communicate until the new behaviors become habit.

To gauge the success of the WCC intervention, and the implementation of many new processes to improve the lives of the employees at Transit, a survey was created using the City-wide survey of 2004 as the baseline. Although the results are not yet available, Transit and ATU are confident there will be an overall improvement. There is a palpable change in the cafeteria’s atmosphere. People smile, engage in conversation and approach management with concerns and/or positive feedback. The stories now told in the workplace start with, “back in the old days”, and that was one year ago.

Operators who sat on the WCC have a renewed sense of empowerment and job fulfillment. Some have taken courses at colleges or applied for supervisory positions. A few have increased their participation in the union so as to diffuse and grow the learning, trust and collaboration of the WCC.

The continued use of self-managed collaborative working groups to resolve key issues will keep Transit management, ATU and operators engaged in dialog. Management and ATU need to remain transparent in their approach and keep the lines of communication flowing. The more operators given the opportunity to engage in self-managed collaborative group work, the more learning will be diffused throughout Transit. To this point in time, the collaboration processes used in Winnipeg Transit truly have taken the organization from enraged to engaged.


Blanchard, Ken, Carlos, John P., and Randolph Alan, Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (San Francisco, CA), 1996

CBC Canada, “Transit Strike Looms in Winnipeg Again”, 2008 at


CBC Canada, ”Winnipeg Transit Strike Averted”, August 2008, at http://www.cbc.ca/canada/manitoba/story/2008/08/20/strike-transit.html

City of Winnipeg, “Employment Opportunities”, 2010,at http://myride.winnipegtransit.com/en/inside-transit/employment/

Evans, G. & Carrere, S. (1991). Traffic congestion, perceived control, and psycho physiological stress among urban bus drivers. Journal of Applied Psychology. 76(5)

Laubenstein, Glen, (CAO) of Winnipeg, Letter to ATU President, 2008

Maupin, Helen & Clarissania, Jessica, “Working Conditions Committee Final Report & Recommendations on Focus Groups“, December 2008

MFL Occupational Health Centre Inc. “Health and Safety Hazards for City Bus Drivers”, 2008, at


Office of the Fire Commissioner, “Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)”, 2000 at http://www.firecomm.gov.mb.ca/cism_main.html

Winnipeg Transit, “Final Voting List”, November 2008


Appendices 1:       Copy of Letter from CAO to ATU President

Appendices 2:       Voting List used to elect operators to the WCC

Appendices 3:        Supervisor Selection Process

All appendices are attached as PDFs

[1] City of Winnipeg, “Employment Opportunities”, 2010, at



[2] Evans, G. & Carrere, S. (1991). Traffic congestion, perceived control, and psycho physiological stress among urban bus drivers. Journal of Applied Psychology. 76(5) p.658. June, 1998

[3] MFL Occupational Health Centre Inc. “Health and Safety Hazards for City Bus Drivers”, 2008, at


[4] CBC Canada, “Transit Strike Looms in Winnipeg Again”, 2008 at


[5] Laubenstein, Glen, (CAO) of Winnipeg, ( Letter) To ATU President , 2008, See appendices

[6] CBC Canada, ”Winnipeg Transit Strike Averted”, August 2008, at http://www.cbc.ca/canada/manitoba/story/2008/08/20/strike-transit.html

[7] Maupin, Helen & Clarissania, Jessica, “Working Conditions Committee Final Report & Recommendations on Focus Groups”, December 2008. Pg. 1-5

[8] Winnipeg Transit, “Final Voting List”, November 2008,  see appendices

[9] Blanchard, Ken, Carlos, John P., and Randolph Alan, Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (San Francisco, CA), 1996, p.78

[10] Office of the Fire Commissioner, “Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), 2000 at http://www.firecomm.gov.mb.ca/cism_main.html

[11] Blanchard, Ken, Carlos, John P., and Randolph Alan, Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (San Francisco, CA), 1996, p.38

[12] McKinsey Quarterly Global Survey Results, Creating Organizational Transformations, July 2008