Ottawa's city council meets in another special session today to fritter around the edges of the city's 44 day old transit workers' strike. The walkout by about 2300 OC Transpo employees: mechanics, dispatchers and drivers has crippled bus and light rail service across the Nation's Capital. It verges on being the longest public transit strike in Canadian history.
In Canada's largest city Toronto, the Government of Ontario knows full well that its very future would be jeopardized by allowing a transit strike to linger this long. In Ontario's second largest city, Ottawa, there's hardly a whimper...and no immediate solution on the horizon. The rub of course is that the Ontario Government is happy to have washed its hands of this one. Because OC Transpo operates two or three bus routes into Hull and Gatineau, Quebec; it is an inter-provincial carrier and falls under Federal jurisdiction.
And...when the matter is settled it may be another black mark against the reputation of the Honourable, Rhona Ambrose, Federal Minister of Labour. As Prime Minister Harper's first Minister of the Environment, Ms Ambrose failed miserably and was rescued out of the portfolio by John Baird. Now as Labour Minister in Harper's second mandate, she is failing on this file and wait...there's a John Baird connection again.
Before Christmas and just a couple of weeks into the strike when the Amalgamated Transit Workers union refused to put the Ottawa City offer to its membership for a vote, Mayor Larry O'Brien sought the assistance of his friend, now conveniently Minister of Transport, John Baird to intercede with Ambrose to force a union vote. This action effectively halted the negotiations on both sides. When Minister Ambrose finally ordered a vote on the offer over the Christmas break, it was scheduled for January 9th. The members of the union resoundingly defeated the proposal by voting against it by more than 75%.
Subsequent efforts by the city to move on the crippled file with the assistance of Federal mediators or an arbitrator have been met with skepticism by the transit system employees. They've interpreted Minister Ambrose's pre-Christmas actions as putting the Federal Department of Labour squarely on city management's side. Ms Ambrose and her bureaucrats have so muddled the dispute, some say based on false information provided by Mayor Larry O'Brien, that Ottawa officials are left to fritter over the periphery issues of the strike rather than dealing head on with the root cause of the walkout.
So far they've discussed whether to provide free service once the buses start rolling. How long it may take to get vehicles certified, repaired and back on the road. They have not touched the $8-million overtime bill which started the strike in the first place. What? You say: Following a 1999 shoot-out at the bus company headquarters which left 4 people dead; to boost morale, the city agreed to enhance to time and a half, and after 8 hours double time, pay for drivers volunteering to work on Sundays. Assignments are based on seniority. Long time drivers, about 200 of them, have been raking-in about $8-million a year in overtime pay, many working double shifts plus on Sundays. The city is swimming in debt, and Mayor O'Brien and his colleagues want to stop the overtime at OC Transpo. That's the issue!
The City of Ottawa has been saving about $3-million per day in salaries and expenses during the 44 day strike. Do the math. That's well over $100 million in savings. In his own devilish way Mayor O'Brien has balanced Ottawa's books. Brilliant or Stupid?