TORONTO - Truck driving instructors are losing their jobs and students are unable to finish their training because of an 11-week DriveTest strike the government should be bringing to a conclusion, critics charged Tuesday.
"These are people that have lost their jobs in the past in the manufacturing industry and they thought trucking would be a good career for them, yet they come in only to find out there's another set back - they cannot go for road tests," said Gus Rahim, president of the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario.
"I'm not sure what they're on now - maybe social assistance, or their benefits have run out. They're very, very frustrated."
The strike is also affecting instructors who are getting laid off because enrolment has come almost to a standstill, and opposition parties say it's time for the government to step in to force an end to the strike.
"People need (the labour) minister to assume the responsibility and the authority that he has to ensure that this doesn't continue to drag out, that people have an opportunity to take on the jobs for which they're trained," said Progressive Conservative Frank Klees.
"This is not about a 16-year-old wanting his licence. It's about adults who have lost their jobs, who cannot get to work, and it has gone on long enough."
Premier Dalton McGuinty said the government was encouraging both sides in the dispute to come to an agreement but wouldn't get involved in the negotiations.
"What we've done is all that we can at this time," said McGuinty.
"You can't admit new drivers at this time but anybody who has already been licensed, if they're up for renewal or something like this, we're giving them an extension."
DriveTest workers, represented by the United Steelworkers Union, began the strike on Aug. 21 over the key issue of job security after talks broke off with their employer, Serco DES Inc.
The main issues have been wages, benefits and a company proposal to increase the number of part-time workers at the expense of full-time jobs.
The strike affects 93 full-time and part-time DriveTest sites, which grant or renew licences to novice drivers and those over 80.
Labour Minister Peter Fonseca insisted the government must let the collective bargaining process take its course, despite any inconveniences.
"We have some of our best mediators working on these negotiations and they are making positive, progressive progress," Fonseca said.
"My understanding is the union has agreed to present the employer's final offer to the membership this week."
What's been characterized as a final offer has already been rejected by union leadership but it will be presented to members for a vote.
Rahim said that if the government doesn't want to interfere, it should at least let the schools do their own testing so people can get to work.
Peter Murphy, a driving instructor from London, Ont., said he's only working a total of 13 hours this week, and eight last week.
"There's no money. I have to get a new job," he said.
"When they get it all figured out, we're all going to be working somewhere else, and probably not come back."
Murphy was one of dozens of drivers and instructors who gathered at the legislature Tuesday to protest the strike, along with 50 school buses and trailer trucks that circled Queen's Park.
The province contracted out driver testing in 2003 to Serco DES in a 10-year deal.