Ottawa transit strike expected to cripple morning commute
Blowing snow and a transit strike that's expected to paralyze the capital will be the reality facing many Ottawa commuters as OC Transpo workers walk off the job early Wednesday morning.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 2,100 OC Transpo drivers, dispatchers and maintenance staff, says workers will finish their overnight shifts and walk off the job in time to cripple the morning commute.
"Unfortunately, we're ready for the strike," said Andr� Cornellier, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
"Usually, when you have a picket line, it's to create some kind of delay -- and that's what we plan on doing."
Heavy traffic expected
City officials are warning commuters there could be a 20 per cent increase in traffic Wednesday as picket lines go up and the strike forces residents to get back in their cars.
The City of Ottawa's contingency plan for a strike includes asking people to carpool and stagger work hours. Some downtown bus lanes will be open to traffic and street parking hours will also be extended.
"Give yourself that extra time and use the carpooling tools that we have made available to you and be patient across all fronts," said John Manconi, director of the city's surface operations.
Commuters make alternate plans
Many Ottawa residents are already using those tools as they scramble to make alternate plans to get to work, school and other appointments.
"I have an appointment for my baby too, and it's going to be hard for me because my family works," said one transit user.
"Get a ride -- that's the only thing I can do," said another.
Students search for rides to exams
The situation is also taking its toll on university students who have been told exams will continue as scheduled despite a transit strike.
"I've already asked all my friends. I've already looked at the (carpool) board here at Carleton. I've tried to get the carpool links. If all that fails, I'm going to be stuck to hitchhiking," said Kathleen Hughes, a PhD student at Carleton University.
In the meantime, Carleton's students' association has committed to pay for shuttle buses that will run from five points across the city at a cost of $27,000.
The University of Ottawa and Algonquin College are directing their students to online boards that offer carpooling.
Last ditch effort squashed
The transit strike comes after talks between the two sides broke off Monday afternoon when the transit union rejected what Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien called the city's final offer.
"We told them that we didn't believe it was sufficient enough for us to bring it back to our membership," Cornellier told CTV Ottawa.
The city says it offered the union a seven per cent wage increase over three years, an offer that was good until midnight Tuesday. The union, though, is asking for a 10.5 per cent pay raise over a three-year period, plus concessions on sick days, scheduling, and workplace safety insurance.
A federal mediator, who worked to hammer out a deal with the City of Ottawa and the Amalgamated Transit Union over the weekend, met independently with both sides on Tuesday. Despite the meetings, no new contract negotiations were scheduled.
According to a memo sent to the mayor and council, the federal mediator advised the city late Tuesday night that "there is no value in further discussions with him in regards to reaching a negotiated contract settlement" with the union.
Union says money not the issue
Although the city is blaming the gap between its final offer and the union's demands on the current economic downturn, union representatives insist talks broke down after demands for scheduling and sick days were not met.
"It's not about money. It's about respect and it's about dignity," said Cornellier.
"When you say that you have an employer that would pay somebody in one room so many sick days and somebody in another room not the same -- I don't think that's right."
Coun. Rainer Bloess has already indicated he will table a motion Wednesday to ask the federal labour minister to declare OC Transpo an essential service, which would get bus drivers back on the road.
In a press release issued Tuesday evening, Bloess said the economic, social and environmental impacts of a transit strike are "unacceptable to the vast majority of residents and councillors."
"The only reason that we have to go to the federal government is because our buses go over to Gatineau. If it wasn't for that, we'd be going to Queen's Park and we would get this in no time -- it happened in Toronto in 24 hours," he told CTV Ottawa.
Ontario premier steps in
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty also lent his voice to the issue Tuesday, urging the two sides to come to a resolution before a transit strike takes a major toll on the economy.
"Come together; this is a really important service to us in Ottawa. It's particularly important as we get into prime retail season," he said.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, who have been without a contract since April, voted 98 per cent in favour of strike action last week. OC Transpo buses provide service to about 350,000 riders on an average day.
A transit strike is not expected to disrupt transit service in the Outaouais or Para Transpo in Ottawa.
With a report from CTV Ottawa's Catherine Lathem, Natalie Pierosara and Kate Eggins