– Council’s victory is gain for bus union

The Ottawa Citizen

By Randall Denley

Despite last week’s brief victory in the OC Transpo labour dispute, Ottawa city councillors will be the losers in the long term, and so will the public. While the Amalgamated Transit Union lost some of the substantive issues resolved by an arbitrator, it was just a setback in the long guerrilla war between this union and the city.

Despite its failure to retain absurd provisions governing shift schedules, the union now has councillors just where it wants them going into the next contract negotiation. That is, in the fetal position. There is no way this council will even consider taking a tough enough line to risk a strike. Union members know it, too. That’s why they refused to give up the right to strike despite their leadership’s recommendation that future disputes be settled by binding arbitration.

Councillors are in a tough position. They will be damned for taking a firm stance in the last negotiation and they will be damned again for rolling over in the next one. Taking a soft approach to bargaining will still be the most attractive course, especially if some councillors pay for the strike in the next election.

The public has a short memory for a lot of things, but a 53-day transit strike in the dead of winter does tend to stick in the mind. The details of the labour dispute might have faded, but people certainly haven’t forgotten their personal inconvenience. Someone has to be to blame for the strike and city councillors are always a popular choice.

There is certainly precedent for municipal strikes exacting a political price. In Toronto, a prolonged municipal workers’ strike last summer was cited as one of the reasons why Mayor David Miller chose not to run again. The city was seeking to end the outmoded practice of allowing workers to bank sick time and collect it on retirement. A compromise was finally reached, but not quickly enough for the public. A municipal strike in Vancouver in 2007 also contributed to the downfall of the mayor.

For all that councillors have done wrong in this term, it will be ironic if one of the few things they did right comes back to haunt them. Councillors have been criticized for years for not taking a hard enough line with city unions, and the OC Transpo contract negotiations provided an excellent opportunity to rectify that imbalance. This was a union group that thought it was normal to define its own work day and have a schedule that often paid workers for more hours than they were actually at work.

The city wanted to end both of these practices in the name of efficiency and cost-saving. Faced with the same situation, what would you have done?

It’s fair to say that the workers were more determined than the city thought they would be, and that councillors lacked a timely exit strategy once it became clear that a settlement could not be reached. But was the fight worth fighting? Absolutely. What was really at stake in the transit strike was who runs OC Transpo, the union or the city.

In the end, the arbitrator sided with the city’s desire to establish a normal, management-organized scheduling regime. While noting that interest arbitration “is not a process where either party should expect or anticipate major breakthroughs or significant deviations from the norm,” the arbitrator said that OC Transpo’s scheduling approach was “virtually unique.”

That’s a point the city side of the dispute made again and again, and it’s one of the reasons workers fought so hard to win their point through a strike. They liked the scheduling setup and it was obviously difficult to defend at arbitration.

Giving management control of scheduling will save taxpayers about $4 million a year, although it’s not yet clear what costs there will be as a result of other provisions of the arbitrator’s award.

Despite the arbitrator’s ruling, the struggle to see who controls the bus company continues. This is a workforce whose obstinate failure to obey a Canadian Transportation Agency order to call out bus stops will ultimately cost the city millions of dollars for an automated system to do that work for them. This is the workforce that has been hampered by a mysterious wave of sickness that has affected the city’s ability to put buses on the street. Any public sympathy workers might have built up while on strike is history now.

Despite that, the drivers are likely to get their way in the next contract. The main lesson for councillors is that the public is clearly not interested in another transit strike. They will be prepared to spend as much as required in the next contract to avoid taking the blame for defending the public interest.

Contact Randall Denley at 613-596-3756 or by e-mail, rdenley@thecitizen.canwest.com

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