EDITOR’S NOTE: Spacing asked Ottawa resident and University of Ottawa geography student David McClelland to give Spacing Montreal readers a big-picture look at the public transit strike currently crippling Ottawa.
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At 12:01 AM on December 10th, buses stopped moving in Ottawa as the over 2,200 members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 officially went on strike, while at the same time over 30 centimetres of snow was falling and one of the four bridges linking Ottawa and neighboring Gatineau was only open to limited vehicular traffic due to structural concerns. If you didn’t know better, you might think Ottawans are masochists.
While the snow has since been cleared and the Chaudière Bridge remains open to cars, the drivers, dispatchers and maintenance workers of OC Transpo are still on strike. OC Transpo has a daily ridership of 350,000, which represents about 20% of the commuter traffic in the city. The Société de transport de l’Outaouais, which operates in Gatineau and downtown Ottawa, meanwhile, is still operating normally.
The ATU voted to strike on December 3rd, with 98% of members in favour of taking job action. It isn’t about money, either—the union went on strike for three main reasons:
1. To maintain their shift-booking system in some form, which allows drivers to select routes and shifts themselves with preference given to the most senior drivers. The City claims drivers are abusing this system and wasting Ottawa’s money.
2. Ending the City’s ability to contract out work, such as maintenance and body work on buses. If this issue can be resolved along with the scheduling issue, the strike will likely end.
3. Parity with other City employees on sick days. OC Transpo drivers receive just six unpaid sick days annually, while other City of Ottawa employees receive between 12 and 15 paid sick days annually.
Both sides have dug in their heels, neither budging on the key issues, meaning that the strike could become quite protracted.
Ottawa residents have obviously reacted strongly to the strike. Union leader André Cornellier has not exactly engendered popular support for the union, and the response of many Ottawans has been one of anger. With the strike coming just before Christmas and during the middle of exam periods at Ottawa’s three major postsecondary institutes, many people feel OC Transpo drivers are holding the city hostage, so to speak. This is only exacerbated by some of the media coverage, which has become decidedly anti-union.
Tensions have only escalated since the strike began, with drivers picketing at City Hall blocking traffic and leading to the City seeking a court order to remove the picket line from City Hall. Since then, things have only gotten worse, as Cornellier has reported received “significant threats” against his person, and rumours of violent threats against drivers and egging of picketers swirl.
In spite of these problems, Ottawa residents as a whole have reacted well to the situation. Residents are pushing forwards with grim determination, as carpooling efforts have sprung up around the city. The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa and the Carleton University Student’s Association have both partnered with their respective universities to offer free shuttle bus services to various suburban locations, while other Ottawa residents make their way to school or work on foot, bike, or by taxi.
One of the more interesting aspects of the strike is how some of the most balanced and diverse debate seems to be taking place on the Internet. The OC Transpo community on blogging website livejournal.com has received a flurry of posts from both drivers and regular Ottawa residents, with a surprisingly minimal amount of vitriol. Elsewhere, Ottawa bloggers are staying on top of the issue, led by the Ottawa transit portal Public Transportation in Ottawa and local blog aggregate website Blogawa.
Of course, the overarching question for everyone living in Ottawa is: when does it end? Ottawa is set to host the World Junior Hockey Championships beginning on Dec. 26, and it will be a major egg on the city’s face if there still isn’t public transportation during the tournament. Scotiabank Place is hard enough to get to as it is, and without OC Transpo, traffic to the arena would be even worse than normal. Both sides need to recognize that this is an important deadline for the city, and that they need to cool off the rhetoric and actually sit down at the table and negotiate if Ottawa is to get out of this mess any time soon.
photo by Mike G