Dr. Dawg

Bus strike musings

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The 51-day Ottawa bus strike is over. We are told by Alain Mercier, OC Transpo boss, that the buses won't be rolling as usual until April or May, if you can believe it. Somehow, idle in their yards for the past seven weeks, 287 buses have become unroadworthy. April or May. Wow.

Recriminations are ringing out everywhere. The facts should point us to the right targets, but they don't always do so.

I read local municipal correspondent Randall Denley with considerable respect, but once in a while he goes completely off the rails. His column today on the recently-ended OC Transpo strike--out of synch even with the generally anti-union
Ottawa Citizen's own editorial position--is an unfortunate example, thankfully rare in his case, of abandoning the facts to bias.

Over-eager to point the finger, Denley gives our fool of a Mayor a complete pass, along with Mercier, and puts all the blame for this extended dispute on the union, ATU Local 279.

"What did people want [Mayor O'Brien] to do, roll over and argue to give the union a blank cheque?" he asks, rather disingenuously, because he knows full well that this strike has never been about money. I am frankly surprised that Denley hasn't mastered the scheduling issue that was the heart and soul of this dispute, but here is an explanation of its complexities for those interested.

He himself reduces the scheduling issue to this: "[T]he city's position on scheduling is to make sure that everyone does a full day's work for a full day's pay. Unreasonable?"

Why no, Randall, except that this was not the crux of the matter, as you well know. The dispute has to do with the City's demands for rolling back an agreement reached in 1999, for which ATU members accepted a 2% wage concession, that would allow members to bid on the available work, with the more pleasant routes going to those with the most seniority. The work itself is management determined, and always has been.

And then this:

As the chief spokesman for one side in a labour dispute, O'Brien was hardly in a position to rise above it all and broker a deal. He was not, as people assume, the city's negotiator in this matter. He wasn't at the table at all

The reference here is to yesterday's Citizen editorial. Normally as rabid about unions as Denley, the editorial board penned a remarkably conciliatory piece, but did have this to say about Hizzoner:

Residents also need to explore the role of the mayor in this dispute. Our top elected official represents the city as a corporation as well as all Ottawans. It was in no one's interest -- not transit workers', civic officials' and most certainly not the public's -- for this dispute to occur. Larry O'Brien should have put himself in a position to rise above the conflict and broker a deal in the interest of all. Instead, he fought and grandstanded. Thus, the mayor failed himself and us. The federal government had to bail him out. He is diminished by this dispute as is the government he represents.

Denley is dead wrong, by the way, about the Mayor not being at the table. He insisted upon intruding there, in fact (scroll down), besides sidelining his team by negotiating in the media.

And he fails to mention not only the Mayor's public posturing, including his nutty suggestion for hiring scabs to run the buses, but the bone-headed advice O'Brien and his staff gave to Minister of Labour Rona Ambrose. They fed her the old "the union is out of touch with its members" goop, and delayed things by more than two weeks while a forced vote of the members took place. That went well, didn't it?

Alain "the buses won't be in full operation until April or May" Mercier also wins some of Denley's fulsome praise. This is the fellow who reacted to the union's request to explain the scheduling issue to a meeting of City Council by threatening ATU with an unfair labour practices complaint, while having no difficulty having his own office contact individual ATU members directly to urge them to vote against their bargaining team.

Well, who's left?

The real villains in this dispute were the leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union 279. While they told the public the dispute was all about scheduling and how it would affect their lifestyle, they weren't prepared to take reasonable offers on wages and benefits to reduce the scope of the dispute. These are times when everyone needs to take a bit less. The transit union wants to be exempt from that reality.

ATU members would be doing themselves a favour if they replaced president André Cornellier with someone who can articulate their positions and improve their public image. To top it off, Cornellier left Thursday's press conference at City Hall in a stretch limo. Quite a representative of the working person.

As I pointed out to Denley in an email some time ago, if the City had bent on the scheduling issue, the union would have moderated its wage and benefit demands in a heartbeat. But they were simply never given that chance. The City kept on presenting the same old offer, again and again, pretending each time that it was a new one. There was no movement on the scheduling issue whatsoever.

As for
André Cornellier, his job is to serve his members, and he does it well enough to have their strong support. I'm sure Denley's advice will be given all the attention that it merits the next time ATU 279 elects its executive. No, Cornellier is no diplomat: he has a speaking style that would scrape paint off a wall. But he represented his people with force and unremitting energy. That's what union leaders are supposed to do.

And as for the dig about the stretch limo, some drivers chartered one to celebrate the end of the dispute, but Denley insists on spinning this as the old "union boss" stereotype--lucky for Cornellier that he wasn't smoking a cigar at the time.

Personally I'm glad the strike is over. It caused unimaginable hardship to countless area residents. Horror stories abound. But we should all now move on. If some insist that a finger of blame should be pointed, however, I have a few suggestions:
  • Blame the Mayor for his inept, macho, brainless handling of the dispute from the get-go. He never wavered in his stupidity. One thing you have to admit, the man is consistent.

  • Blame City Council for putting up with O'Brien's horrendous performance. Councillor Doucet warrants some admiration for breaking ranks, but that was remarkably short-lived.

  • Blame OC Transpo head Alain Mercier. He did nothing to bring the parties together with his on-going "take it or leave it" approach. Threatening to take the union to the Canada Industrial Relations Board simply because the latter wanted to explain a complex issue to City Council was pointlessly obstructive. And now the strike is over, full service won't be resumed for three or four months. Who's responsible for this continued delay? The buck stops with him.

  • And blame the media--not only the rednecks at CFRA whipping up the mobs, but the more professional commentators who could not grasp the scheduling issue, helped to feed popular misconceptions and prejudices throughout the strike, and failed the public miserably thereby. Although, in fairness, there have been some honourable exceptions.
Comments, particularly from local residents, would be most welcome.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 31, 2009 10:10 AM.

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