Larry O'Brien's Lies and the Tragic History Behind OC Transpo's Scheduling System

This post is dedicated to the memory of Clare Davidson, Brian Guay, David Lemay, Harry Schoenmakers, and Pierre Lebrun, victims of the poisoned work environment at OC Transpo.

Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien would have us believe that it was the union that precipitated the OC Transpo strike and that the scheduling system is costing the city and OC Transpo money.

The truth is the strike was precipitated when management presented a final offer and made it clear that it's scheduling proposal was not negotiable, leaving the union with only two options, accept the offer (the substance of which had already been rejected by 98% of the membership) or strike. Further negotiations were not an option, and as we have seen, are still not an option as far as Larry O'Brien is concerned. Although the union has proposed changes to the current scheduling system to try and address OC Transpo's concerns.

But the biggest lie is that the scheduling system is costing the city money, while the truth is OC Transpo workers absorbed the costs of the scheduling system.

In an effort to improve the working conditions, the Union’s membership voted overwhelmingly to pay for these additional costs itself. Drivers did this by accepting a sub-standard wage increase in 1999. This substandard pay rate continues today. As recently reported in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Ottawa’s transit workers are paid many thousands of dollars lower than transit workers in other Ontario municipalities of similar size. Simply put, Ottawa’s drivers are paid lower rates for the benefit of having the current scheduling system.
But the real story behind the strike is the unspoken tragic history of how the current scheduling system came about, a history that I am sure is on the minds of OC Transpo workers everyday they are on the picket line.
In the mid-1990s morale at OC Transpo began to fall, it hit bottom in 1998 and 1999. In response to this both the Union and Management knew that it had to carefully examine ways to turn the workplace around. Management at OC Transpo recommended to Regional Council, and Council approved a study by KPMG that cost in excess of one million dollars.

KPMG recognized the problem, noting in its February 1999 report:

"…[reduced public funding, deteriorating bus fleet, and increasing cost of providing public transit services] contributed to the strife between OC Transpo and its workers, demoralized workforce, resulting in poorer customer service…"

KPMG also noted that both the union and management shared a concern and hoped to work together to improve working conditions. KPMG went on to observe:

"There has been a strong commitment from both the unions and management to recognize the shortcomings of the system and to implement change and improvements as quickly as possible. The level of co-operation, and the commitment to consultation between the unions and management has improved dramatically.”

The KPMG study recommended that management allow the drivers, including their union, to have a greater role to play in the operation of the workplace. KPMG rejected the prevailing attitude in the workplace concluding that “the philosophy that “I put up with it so you have to” has been recognized as inappropriate in today’s environment.”

To further demonstrate their willingness to overcome problems, representatives from both management and the union attended negotiation training sessions at Harvard University. The result was a commitment by both sides to embrace “interest based negotiations” – a process where the parties openly share their concerns, expectations and information in negotiations. The Harvard program was partially funded by the federal Mediation Services department.

Improved morale could not come quick enough though – on April 6, 1999 an employee had entered the Belfast Road bus depot and opened fire – killing four long-service workers. This terrible event, and the memories of four workers, reinforced the need to make improvements in this workplace.

One such improvement was the scheduling system that is presently in dispute. The proposal originated with the employer negotiators – a way that drivers could have more input into the nature of their work. Prior to this, drivers reported in and were assigned routes and times. There was frustration and a feeling that drivers did not have even this small amount of control over their working lives.

The employer’s 1999 proposal on scheduling was also a method to relieve junior members from working less desirable times. For example one driver, Craig Watson recently commented, “under the old system I worked weekends for ten years, under the current system I had a better balance between weekends and weekdays.”

To create this flexibility the union and management agreed that more senior drivers could bid on weekend work in addition to their normally assigned hours. This would give the more junior members time off. The freely negotiated schedule did result in more overtime for those senior members – approximately 0.6% in 1999. The company said that while it supported the scheduling flexibility, it did not want to shoulder the additional cost, even though it was a small one.

The scheduling system now under assault by the City was the product of interest based negotiations in 1999 – for their efforts the Employer’s negotiators won an prestigious award for innovation and leadership. That isn’t being duplicated today.
As a result of those co-operative efforts made by workers and managers, employer and union, working conditions, morale, and service levels began to improve.

Then Larry O'Brien was elected Mayor of Ottawa.

Ottawa Transit Strike - The History of the Current Scheduling System
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Ottawa Massacre

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