It didn’t take much in the end.
Like feuding schoolkids, Larry O’Brien and André Cornellier finally had their heads knocked together last Thursday afternoon. The announcement of the end of the strike came at a hastily arranged news conference. It looked more like a humbling apology to the rest of the class.
The role of teacher in this schoolyard spat was played by federal Labour Minister Rona Ambrose. She turned a blind eye for as long as she could, before the threat of back-to-work legislation forced the City Of Ottawa and ATU to agree in five hours to what they couldn’t agree to in 51 days. Cynics suggest Barack Obama’s visit to class on Feb. 19 was one of the factors that forced her hand.
O’Brien’s words at the news conference confirmed neither side was mature enough to sort this out for themselves. He stated it would have been impossible to reach an agreement without the federal threat.
“The federal government of Canada has started the process of back-to-work legislation,” he said.
“When both parties realized that the end of the strike was inevitable, both parties decided it was time to get back to work.”
In Ambrose’s statements, she has been somewhat dismissive of both parties’ negotiating skills. However, it would be wrong to start relying on federal politicians to settle labour disputes. These were exceptional circumstances, principally because the Ontario government has no jurisdiction over a transit system that runs several routes into Quebec.
The gravity of the situation was indicated by the ease with which all parties agreed to pass back-to-work legislation, which, if it had been required, needed unanimous support. The Bloc Québécois and NDP have little history of voting against labour unions. In this case, exceptional work from Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar firstly convinced Ambrose to send all issues to arbitration, rather than impose a contract on the drivers. Then he sold the deal to his own NDP caucus.
Above all, it’s paramount that a strike like this never happens again. Because of its interprovincial routes, OC Transpo is in a weird legislative position, echoed only by Gatineau’s STO (also operating in Ottawa) and Transit Windsor (which runs buses into Detroit). Not only does this leave OC Transpo unaccountable to the province of Ontario, it also exempts the service from various safety regulations.
Closing this loophole would be a step in the right direction.
Better procedures are also necessary so the situation in this strike, when days passed without talks, is not repeated. Enforcing daily talks might not be pleasant, but it would commit both sides to sit ’round the table and, hopefully, put aside petty personal rivalries. And if a resolution cannot be found within a certain time limit, as much as it pains me to say it, the issue should be sent to binding arbitration.