Saturday, September 4, 2010



In the unlikely event that Ottawa's incumbent Mayor Larry O'Brien is re-elected in the city's municipal election on October 25; it will be in spite of a well lubricated cabal from the National Capital's transit employees.

The more than 2200 drivers, dispatchers and mechanics of Local 279 of the Amalgamated Transit Union of the Teamsters; the very vast majority of all employees of OC Transpo (Ottawa's transit company), are on a payback mission to unseat candidate O'Brien whom they blame for a bitter 54 day strike which crippled the city from December 10, 2008 into February of 2009.

Like an albatross around Ottawa's neck, since Larry O'Brien was elected in the fall of 2006, public transit issues almost too numerous to list have both challenged and stormed the Mayor's administration. They may well presage his downfall in about 50 days. O'Brien's critics and opponents, the transit union members included, believe all the issues and complications were of the Mayor's own making.

OC Transpo operates about 1200 buses, a para-transport system, and a light-rail diesel powered 5-mile North-South line (The O-Train). The Mayor's first action upon taking office in 2006 was to cancel a 12-mile electric surface light-rail system which had been approved by the previous City Council. (The resulting lawsuits were settled "out of court" leaving Ottawa taxpayers on the hook for $35-million.) Lest the issue be left dangling: The current council just recently approved a multi-billion dollar sub-surface (ie:subway) light-rail system which (financing in place and God willing) may be operating in about ten years.

Next followed Ottawa's longest ever transit strike starting just as the Christmas shopping season began in December 2008. Many businesses have never recovered from the break down in public transit, and at least the ATU/Teamsters union members at OC Transpo blame the Mayor's intransigence over scheduling issues for the prolonged walkout. In fact the drivers and mechanics might never have gone back to work except for a loophole in transport laws which allowed the Federal Government to step-in and arbitrate the dispute. OC Transpo runs a couple of routes into Gatineau, Quebec which allowed the Feds to declare the company an inter-provincial carrier and the government was thus allowed to step into the mess.

In fact, the "scheduling issues" which prolonged the strike almost two years ago still haven't been resolved...which brings us to this apparent concerted effort by the ATU to unseat the Mayor. Just last week the Union's members soundly defeated a proposal which could have laid to rest the simmering dispute; a matter which the drivers now claim will lead to unprecedented bus route delays starting on Tuesday when public school begins; the city's major university and college classes resume; and post summer vacation business ramps-up. The transit union says: There aren't enough buses nor drivers because of the current staff scheduling practices which one union official described as..."a complete screw-up. That's a no-brainer. So if your express bus is late you'll know where it is."

The problem is apparently compounded by as many as 300 buses which are out of service because the mechanics, who are members of the same union, don't have the time - or (as one wag put it) the "ambition" - to repair them. City officials concede there will be "traffic nightmares" come Tuesday morning but they link the problems to unprecedented downtown construction projects.

The acting-President of ATU Local 279, Mike Aldrich, claims there is a silver lining ahead once the October 25 election brings the city a new mayor - "Anything is better than Larry O'Brien." It may thus be that the stage is set for a union cabal to unseat O'Brien with the assistance (willing or not) of the city's quarter-million daily transit users.

What for the most part seems clear is that when Larry O'Brien's biographer writes of his City Hall term (perhaps on the back of a business card) - it will not be nearly as interesting as Charlotte Whitton's, Ottawa's iconic two term Mayor (1951-56 / 1960-64) who's biography: "The Last Suffragette" is being published next week. Whitton who died in 1975 (Same year as Jimmy Hoffa, but under less mysterious circumstances) is said to haunt the current owners of her house on Renfrew Street. Jeez I hope that isn't the fate reserved for future owners of O'Brien's multi-million dollar downtown condo!

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