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 Toronto 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 Chaudià¨re 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. Pathetic. All transit in major cities should be an essential service, especially in national captials. You don’t see strikes in Washington DC (it would be considered an embarrassment besides crippling government work), so why should Ottawa and Canadians suffer?

  2. O.T., but what are Ottawa’s 3 major post-secondary institutions?

    I’m guessing U of O, Carleton and UQAH, but I am not sure about the third.

  3. uSkyscraper: Do you live in the U.S.? It seems like maybe you do. Are you in Buffalo?

  4. Interesting that OC Transpo represents 20% of commuter traffic, I had no idea Ottawa relied so heavily on public transit. Also interesting to see how strikes in the public sector are playing out with the recession looming in the background. Hopefully it is not a sign of greater turmoil to come as governments struggle to maintain public service levels.

  5. This stinks. I’m heading up to Ottawa tomorrow, and not looking froward to the mess.

  6. Ottawa relies on public transit to that extent because of a policy of limited parking in the downtown area (I believe the Zoning By-Law has a maximum parking standard but I’m not sure about this…).

    Post-secondary institutions in Ottawa, listed from Wikipedia:

    * Algonquin College
    * Carleton University
    * Dominican University College [quite small]
    * La Cité Collégiale
    * Saint Paul University [quite small]
    * University of Ottawa

    (Mohawk College is in Hamilton (with some satellite campuses also west of Toronto).)

  7. The third is Algonquin college (equivalent of Seneca). The strike isn’t so bad, traffic is just a bit heavier but outside of non-rush hour its fine.

    The the worse thing is that they aren’t letting regular traffic (even foot traffic) use the transitway, the transit police will come by and tell you to get off. Got told off a quite a few times, its not a safety thing, there’s only a car every 4 minutes and most of the paths are plowed it’s also a major shortcut to get to different places in the city.

    Also note that another union representing the supervisors and transit police are set to strike on Dec 23 if no deal is reached.

    Well its off to my last exam and back to Toronto!

  8. thanks for those drivers, i need to get a cab for every exam day~

  9. The Union hubris is so out of sync with the climate today.

    You want a civic job NO UNION, NO STRIKES, you earn your way on performance just like every other individual.

    Don’t like it… go elsewhere to work.

  10. Get back to work you lazy S.O.B.z

    I’m here trying to get a job and can’t because of you greedy mouches. Merry Christmas, you’re a fowl one Mr grinch

  11. Ottawa and area has the dumbest political representation (not including the folks on the Hill).

    For instance, there is a rail bridge which could bring the O-Train across to Gatineau (and relieve the traffic caused by the recent structural problems of a major road bridge) but Ottawa council is fixated on digging a half billion tunnel under downtown as Light Rail-no, Bus!-no, Light Rail! Plan number 742 this year and Gatineau doesn’t want it for some reason no-one can explain to me.

  12. I’ve lived in Toronto for 20 years, London for one, and New York City for 8. I’ve never had to endure a transit strike in NYC other than the famous wildcat strike of 2005, which resulted in such severe penalties to the union that they will likely never try that shit again. (Under New York State law, transit is an essential service and forbidden to strike).

    I agree with Mark that Ottawa is a bit of a mess when it comes to the future of rapid transit. The Transitway is something of an odd bird, but at least they tried. Now they are stuck with deciding on keeping the BRT model (i.e. Transitway/Curitiba), changing over to cheapo-diesel-light rail (i.e. O-Train/NJ River Line) or, apparently the current plan, going for first-class electric light rail w/tunnel (i.e Seattle Link). The sad part isn’t even the inconsistent planning – it’s that it costs $3 to ride a local bus. Show me another city in North America with those kind of fares — guess what, there isn’t one.

  13. The proud and famous canadian National Capital has no Public Transportation before Christmas and the World Junior Hockey Championship, no busses, no underground transportation, this is exactly what it is,….there is no other National Capital like this elsewhere in the world….for world Championships other nations spend billions of dollars to build new facilities for sport fans and they start building one year before the Championship starts…
    The whole world keeps an eye on us now and ridiculously we are again “hard heads” and we do not want to spend our Christmas right!
    This is an egg in the face of Ottawa citizens who pay OC Transpo wages!*&$%#(*)
    Are the citizens going to pay another bus pass for January? The buss pass in Deecember was fully paid and used only 9 days!
    This December we can back to 18th Century and YES, WE CAN RIDE HORSES!!!???
    I will ride a Horse to see the Final for the WORLD JUNIOR HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP!!!

  14. Mark: Using the Prince of Wales Bridge to extend the O-Train into Quebec is entirely up to the City of Gatineau. I’m pretty sure Ottawa would like to extend it across the river—I’ve seen a few official documents with speculation to that effect—but unless Gatineau approves it, then it will never happen.

  15. David: The O-Train could theoretically run across the Prince of Wales Bridge into downtown Hull without the approval of the City of Gatineau. OC Transpo is federally-regulated (hence no back-to-work legislation possible until the House of Commons returns), and has been running bus services into Hull for years. The Capital Railway (official name for the O-Train) is likewise federally regulated and may run across the provincial border without needing any approval from the Province of Quebec.

    The only impediments to running the O-Train across the bridge into Hull are a) the need to get approval from the Canadian Pacific Railway, who still own track on the north side of the bridge, b) the third O-Train unit has been allowed to fall into disrepair by OC Transpo, and cannot be brought into service without some critical parts and c) OC Transpo management and the City of Ottawa have consistently refused to consider running the O-Train into Hull, and it seems nothing will change their minds.

  16. It is so wrong that a union has the legal ability to not just directly hurt a company, but ruin the economy of a city, put innocent people out of work and hurt families. I hope that the bus drivers appreciate the harm that they brought upon the innocent. Years ago, Ronald Reagan fired all air traffic controllers, gave them a number of days to resign if they chose, and those that didn’t lost their air traffic control jobs permanently. This is what is needed here. There are a lot of people who would love to have a bus driver job. By the way, I said the same thing to, then Toronto Mayor, Mel Lastman during the last garbage strike. He didn’t have the guts to do it.

    Giving employees some strength in negotiation with an employer has gotten out disproportional. Here, the damage to others is severe and they do not have direct recourse to push back. That is wrong. Citizens are victem of bully unions.

  17. As problematic as the transit strike’s been for me, I would prefer to not resort to the alleged “Reagan Solution”. My fear is that it is designed to be abused from the get-go.

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