Monday, March 14, 2011

Cooler heads need to prevail in OC Transpo contract negotiations

Through the 2008-09 winter transit strike and ever since, citizens in Ottawa have been witness to the back-and-forth between OC Transpo and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 279, which represents OC Transpo operators and mechanics, about (along with other issues) scheduling. OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier has a number of ideas which, by his numbers, would increase efficiency and improve service for Ottawa transit system; the ATU, led by current vice-president Mike Aldrich, thinks most of the changes will do the opposite, and also says they'll further poison the work environment at OC Transpo. For most citizens, it's a debate short on provable facts and high on rhetoric, which makes it all the more frustrating for most.

Last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Randall Denley waded into the debate, offering a column that indicated support for Mercier and management as the decision-makers. From his column:

Mayor Jim Watson said Monday he wanted to get the facts on the table as the city heads into contract negotiations so that “urban myths” weren’t allowed to persist. Good idea.

The problem with running an organization like OC Transpo is that every employee and bus rider fancies himself an expert because he knows something about some element of this complex service.

What is little appreciated is that the current Transpo management has brought rationality and a numbers-driven approach to running a bus company that used to be an amateur operation. Mercier won’t win any popularity contests, but most of what he does is soundly supported by numbers and analysis.

Unfortunately, numbers and analysis are never as compelling for an individual as his direct experience, however limited that might be.
Denley also spoke about a few other issues currently being debated between two sides. But through it all, Denley made one especially prescient point: No matter whether the ATU is in the right or the wrong, their attempts to gain publicity for the issues have for the most part backfired. The public hasn't been sympathetic to the concerns of drivers, and for the most part the perception--whether rightly or wrongly--is that operators are compensated well for their work, and if they are unhappy with what they get, there are many others prepared to step in and accept it (that was also the tone Denley ended his column on, as well: "OC Transpo who really think the job is terrible should quit and give the opportunity to someone who wants it."). That's a dangerous stance to take with any group of workers (imagine the experience that would be lost), but it seems a fairly common sentiment. The union lost the battle for public opinion in the last round of negotiations; they would do well to heed lessons learned and keep their tactics to the bargaining table, especially with a mayor who seems more willing to play fair this time around.

It does seem that the union realizes there are things they can do to improve their reputation among the public. On the OC Transpo LiveJournal, a hub dominated largely by operators, user mayorzero published an entry called "Stop The Whining", asking his fellow members to stop complaining to the media about their working conditions, pointing specifically to this letter published in the Citizen from a 30-year veteran of OC Transpo. Mayorzero speaks to Denley's column:

While most of Denley's column is complete and utter crap (as usual), he does make a number of good points too, and the union and membership should take note.


So please stop whining on Facebook, blogs, letters to the editor,
(especially) CFRA etc, etc. Every time somebody whines on behalf of the membership, the public and the majority of the media just bury our asses further and further.

All we should be hearing from the union right now is exactly what we are hearing from Jim Watson: "We will not be negotiating in public, we will bring the issues before our membership and will provide information at the appropriate time."

It would seem that new ATU president Garry Queale is handling things the right way: Say the right things about wanting to avoid a transit strike, issuing complaints through the appropriate agencies (like the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which was sent a complaint a few weeks ago) instead of through the media, and--basically--taking the high road in the negotiations. The city and OC Transpo has done a good job this time around keeping their tone civil.

But one thing that absolutely must change, if we're seriously going to see an improvement in relations? Regular citizens of Ottawa, the people who take the bus or even those who only pay taxes, need to show a little bit of respect and respectability here. ATU members are fighting to get a bit more money from you, yes, but they're also human beings, with families and lives. So treat them with the respect they deserve.

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