A federal mediator will meet separately with city officials and the striking transit union on Monday, in hopes of restarting contract negotiations and ending a 34-day crippling shutdown in the nation's capital.

Mayor Larry O'Brien is hopeful the intervention leads to a revival of talks this week, and said the city remains ready and willing to bargain despite introducing several measures to help beleaguered residents.

The federal labour minister, meanwhile, said Friday she's ready to appoint an arbitrator. Rona Ambrose wants both sides to return to the bargaining table after the Amalgamated Transit Union voted 75 per cent in favour of rejecting the city's latest offer in a forced vote Thursday.

"I would encourage the employer and union to seriously consider any option that will help them achieve an agreement," Rona Ambrose said in a statement.

"This strike has been difficult on all residents of the National Capital Region, and we want to see a resumption of transit service at the earliest possible date.

"However, the onus is on the employer and union to bargain in good faith, demonstrate flexibility, and achieve a settlement."

Contingency plan

City officials are now scrambling to make alternate plans to help residents deal with the prolonged OC Transpo shutdown, announcing a flurry of measures on Friday.

Included was the potential opening of the Transitway to commuter traffic, to be discussed at next Wednesday's council meeting. Organized shuttles, such as those operated by colleges and universities, already have approval to use the routes.

And people who have lost their job due to the strike, or are at risk of unemployment, are eligible for two weeks of emergency funding from the city. Interested residents should call 3-1-1 for more information.  

The city also announced :

  • an increased Para Transpo capacity by leasing additional vehicles and hiring temporary drivers;
  • a $200,000 fund to assist community agencies with emergency transportation;
  • an effort with the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to provide clients with up-front benefits for transportation costs
  • a partial reinbursement for December bus passes at any city client service centre, beginning next week. The specific date has not been released.

A Tuesday meeting is also scheduled with local business groups to discuss parking issues, including metered and off-street service downtown.

Union rallies at Ottawa City Hall, non-essential layoffs planned 

Meanwhile, union members took a short break from the picket lines Friday to show solidarity at a rally at Ottawa City Hall -- and ask the city to return to the bargaining table with a fair offer.

"I was not elected by my membership to be a public speaker. I was elected by my membership to fight for them and to respect them and make sure that everybody respects them. I am a union leader," said an emotional Andr� Cornellier, president of ATU Local 279.

Cornellier says it's not acceptable to ask union members to work 13.5 hours and only get paid for half that time, which is one of the main issues.

"We've been prepared to resume negotiations for a long time, but the Mayor wanted this vote, and the delays it has caused, thinking he would break our backs," he said in a prepared statement posted on the union's website.

OC Transpo has issued a layoff notice to about 60 "non-critical personnel" who are also members of the ATU, but a different local (1760). The city will try to mitigate the job losses through reassignment, acording to a memo from O'Brien and city manager Kent Kirkpatrick.

Taxi union says they won't be 'scabs'

Although the city says it plans to release more taxi plates to help facilitate transportation in the capital, the taxi union says it won't support that move.

"We see this as a way to use us as scabs, which will harm labour relations," Mohamed Alsadi told CTV Ottawa.

"We don't believe this is going to do anything to resolve this bus strike."

Taxi chits are being provided by the city to "vulnerable" transit users, including seniors and low-income workers.

What happens next?

The results of Thursday's vote means the transit strike will continue into its fifth week, which has put mounting pressure on the federal government to make OC Transpo an essential service and order drivers back to work.

Transport Minister John Baird, however, has said declaring OC Transpo an essential service would need full support of the House of Commons and the Senate in order to move the legislation through quickly.

In a Friday letter to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, the city's solicitor argued the strike has not compromised the public's health and safety to such a degree that warrants essential service designation under the federal labour code.

The main sticking point of the dispute remains control over bus driver scheduling. OC Transpo wants more control over the shifting of drivers. The union wants to keep the current system that rewards seniority.

More than 2,300 OC Transpo drivers, dispatchers and mechanics walked off the job Dec. 10, after working without a contract since April. About 2,030 members of ATU Local 279 turned out to vote on the city's latest offer on Thursday.

With a report from CTV Ottawa's Vanessa Lee