Ottawa transit strike brings city to a standstill

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 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


  1. Hardass mayor O’Brien is likely to dig his heels, too, as the right-wingnut certainly believes that there should be no transit and people should have their own cars.

    And don’t count on back-to-work legislation, Ottawa transit is under federal charter (because it goes into Québec), and the federal parliament isn’t likely to sit soon…

  2. So it’s all hardass Obrien’s fault, eh? Well, to provide a counterpoint in terms that Jean will understand…

    Hardass André Cornellier is likely to dig his heels, too, as the left-wingnut certainly believes that OC Transpo exists for the benefit of his union, not the people who ride it.

    Transit unions are out to protect their own interests, and that’s fine, but those interests don’t particularly coincide with the public’s. To try and paint this as some campaign by an anti-transit mayor is just ridiculous.

  3. I’m not particularly familiar about the history of labour-management relations at the OC, but it is true that O’Brien has taken a very reactionary, anti-environmental, anti-public-transport stance instead of working on developing the trams and light rail an urban centre as large as Ottawa-Gatineau has become so sorely needs.

    One thing is certain, while the strike continues, I’m not visiting Ottawa (in wintertime). I have family in Gatineau and in Ottawa, but I can’t bear being dependent on people with cars giving me lifts.

    So when can we expect a “Spacing Ottawa/Gatineau”? Still awaiting the Vancouver version…

  4. Oc Transpo Bus Service in Ottawa should be an essential service.
    This pathetic strike for flexitime for senior drivers is so ridiculouse.
    How many employees in Ottawa or anywhere in the world have flexitime? Answer not many.
    André Cornellier does not care one bit how this affects Ottawa.
    People it affects:
    Anyone without transport.
    Poor People
    Disabled People
    Buisnesses like: Shopping Malls, Supermarkets, etc.
    And what about low income families who rely on Oc Transport to get to work to feed thier Families, If they cant get to work they end up homeless and without work.

    This pig headed fool of André Cornellier says the strike is for respect and dignity , What about respecting and dignity for Oc transpo bus customers.
    I thought for one to be successful in buisness rule one treat customers with respect.

    Lets make OC Transpo an essential service.
    And lets fire André Cornellier, As that maybe the only way to teach this fool a little humility.

  5. I am a retired individual who relies on public transit to get around. I do not drive and I don’t expect my husband to drive me all over the city just because I want to go shopping. That said, there are many retirees (both genders) who do not own cars and must rely on public transit to get around for medical appointments (of all kinds) and they can’t rely on their friends to drive them either. Many of them are single individuals who must rely on themselves to do anything. Then there are the high school students who do not qualify for yellow bus service because the don’t normally take a “600” bus. They don’t normally have friends or family that have cars and can drive them to school either!. What the HECK are they supposed to do? Freeze on their long walk to school – that isn’t fair either. Families who can’t afford cars and all that entails. They need public transit to get to their jobs to make a living!

    OC Transpo in my estimation should be an essential service because of the many thousands of people living in a city the size of Ottawa and area who have no choice but to depend on bus services to get around to do what they must in their daily lives – WAKE UP EVERYBODY INVOLVED IN THIS MESS!!

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