Revised version of an article published March 2, 2012 by the Halifax Media Co-op as "We've Been There, Halifax: Reflections on the 2008-9 Ottawa transit strike"
Winter in Ottawa is not always friendly. And it’s not just the weather. In early December 2008, the global economy was in tatters, Harper had prorogued parliament to prevent a majority coalition of “separatists and socialists” from taking power, and York University academic workers were entering their second month of a long, bitter strike.
That’s when Ottawa’s buffoon of a mayor, Larry O’Brien, a millionaire businessman, intervened directly in negotiations between the City of Ottawa and the public transit workers union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279.
Rob Ford before Rob Ford
O’Brien had come to power in 2006 through some shady dealings with a perennial right-wing mayoral candidate, and won a surprise victory against an NDP candidate who was considered the front-runner until a few weeks before the election. Promising no new taxes, restraints on public services and abandoning the City’s hard-won plan to expand light rail transit, O’Brien increased policing, passed a law banning the homeless from sleeping on the streets, and in subsequent budgets, tried to close public library branches and community centres, raised transit fares and cut bus routes.
O’Brien won the election because he swept the rural wards and higher-income suburbs, although he was handily defeated in the urban core and older streetcar suburbs. The Ottawa megacity, a product of the Harris years, once again ensured that municipal government remained a dysfunctional mess, pitting urban against rural in a manner that largely failed in representing the needs of both constituencies.
After suffering political setbacks in his first two budgets and now facing a budget deficit of $12 million in the fall of 2008, O’Brien tried to create a new public enemy by taking on the most powerful municipal workers' union. After months of negotiations that flew well below the local media’s radar, there was suddenly a looming transit strike in late November 2008. O’Brien had intervened directly in bargaining, so the story goes, to try and repeal the union’s seniority rights to booking weekday routes that had existed for 106 years. The City also tried to increase the eight-hour split-shift from 12 to 13.5 hours. Wages and benefits were also a major issue.
The union responded with an incredible 98 percent strike mandate. This shouldn’t be surprising. The union had played an important role in helping the bus drivers and mechanics of OC Transpo emerge from a dark and tragic chapter in their history. Working conditions in the 1990s were terrible and morale was at rock bottom across the workforce of about two thousand. Among the many stories I heard about this time from bus drivers and mechanics, one always stuck in my head: “junior” drivers who had worked for upwards of a decade in the 1990s were never able to get a weekend off because management had so much control over scheduling. After a strike in 1996, morale fell to a new low. In 1999, an angry worker entered the St.Laurent bus garage and shot four co-workers dead, wounded two others, and then killed himself.
The tragedy resulted in a major overhaul of workplace relations. The union and management developed new training programs and new mechanisms for improving worker-management relations. The subsequent collective agreement focused on working conditions and quality of life. The transit workers accepted a pay freeze to secure more control over scheduling to ensure that drivers and mechanics could spend more time following other pursuits and have more time with their families, loved ones and friends.
These were the very reforms that O’Brien tried to repeal when he intervened in the negotiations. The near-unanimous strike vote was as predictable as it was necessary. When O’Brien refused to budge on concessions, the strike kicked off on December 10. Over two thousand drivers and mechanics would stay on the picket lines for 52 days, through a miserably cold and dreary winter.
Labour loses the public
The strike was not popular and the union’s media relations were next to non-existent. I visited the picket lines – which was hard to do without the buses running! – and some of the strikers I spoke to were unhappy with how the union was coming across to the public. Ottawa’s two local dailies, the Sun and Citizen, were not that friendly either. Local talk radio station CFRA was filled with vile anti-union, anti-worker talk. The economy, everyone said, was tanking, so how could these workers be so greedy?
With no media strategy, no coordination with the local labour council and other unions, the transit workers union became more and more unpopular. This was compounded by the tough words of André Cornellier, the francophone president of ATU Local 279, representing the striking membership. André was under a lot of stress and thoroughly pissed off with O’Brien. He didn’t mince words and stood his ground in local press interviews, but he didn’t have the diplomatic touch. He wasn’t that type of union leader. He was more like the men and women I met on the picket lines – fed up and angry – and didn’t seem to have time for anyone who didn’t quickly grasp what was at stake. Even though it took an hour or two of internet research to get a firm grasp of the strike's details, the press largely absolved itself from its responsibility to inform the public.
The most significant incident of bad union PR was André’s criticism of the able-bodied public. Early in the strike, he observed to the press that the disabled and elderly users of ParaTranspo (which was not on strike) had supported previous labour actions by ParaTranspo workers. If these vulnerable citizens, Cornellier tried to explain, could support their transit workers, the able-bodied should be able to do the same.
The local media stripped André’s words out of context and presented them as an attack on transit users and the public. After these comments, it was amazing to see how O’Brien and the media suddenly became the defenders of the working poor who had to walk hours to work while others lost their jobs because of impossible travel distances. Of course, questions of why workers were paid so little, and why they couldn’t afford to live near their place of employment were never asked. Nor was much said about O’Brien’s decision to scrap the City’s existing light-rail plan (which has since been restored with huge flaws) and slash bus routes, including critical late-night service to dense, low-income neighbourhoods.
"Fire Larry O'Brien"
With little public support, no movement on the left or among the wider Ottawa labour movement, myself and a comrade at the Canadian Labour Congress office in Ottawa, drafted a one-page flyer entitled “End the Strike, Fire Larry O’Brien” (http://lists.mutualaid.org/pipermail/opirgottawa/2008-December/000178.html) The leaflet called for a rally to support the transit workers picketing City Hall. The rally was small – about forty people – but it was a good start for a city with no substantial left outside the campuses. To give credit where credit is due, the Ottawa West-Nepean NDP riding association passed a motion supporting the union (the powerful Ottawa Centre NDP machine backing Paul Dewar was dead silent on the issue).
The whole post-economic-meltdown had caught even the doom-and-gloom Marxists off-guard. It was plainly obvious that for all our class struggle rhetoric and hours spent pouring through anti-capitalist texts, we had little real first-hand knowledge of these matters. Solidarity had to be built through hard-work, not pronouncements or waging a war of words with right-wing knobs on the Ottawa Citizen website. It meant visiting picket lines, talking to workers so we could be educated, and learning how to be radicals with humility. As one of those student radicals who had been immersed in campus activism for a number of years, I had a lot to learn from the transit workers who had never read Marx but knew the score far more intimately than I had ever experienced, even in my many crummy minimum-wage retail jobs.
Around Christmas, Larry O’Brien went on a new public offensive after the union’s bargaining committee rejected a "new" employer offer that was essentially the same as the last one. O’Brien did this after repeatedly rejecting the union’s offer of mediation. Union officials refused to take the offer to the membership. O’Brien responded by trying to claim the mantle of democracy, writing an open letter to the union members asking why their union leaders wouldn’t let them vote.
The Federal government steps in
As January rolled around, the prorogation of parliament was approaching its end. The strike dragged on, and public dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s tactics began to grow. People were particularly angry when it was revealed that O'Brien and other city officials were happy that the city was saving $3 million a week because of the strike. It even led the Ottawa Citizen to run increasingly critical articles, articles that finally started laying out the union grievances in their full context (but still a month after the strike had started). However, the decline in O’Brien’s credibility and support didn’t lead to an increase in support for the union. “A pox on both your houses” was the new common sense.
In this context, the mayor turned to the federal government which raised the spectre of back-to-work “essential service” legislation. Because OC Transpo operated some routes that crossed over into Quebec, it fell under federal labour jurisdiction, not provincial. Premier McGuinty had no power to legislate them back-to-work like he had done with Toronto transit workers the previous April. Rona Ambrose, then Minister of Labour, met O’Brien half-way by implementing a forced vote on the employer’s last offer.
It was one of those “what the hell?” moments to those of us unfamiliar with the many bewildering details of Canadian industrial relations. One had to ask: when had anyone heard of the government forcing a vote on employers?
With this happening, I found it really useful in explaining to people that whereas the union is a democratic, member-driven body that could actually vote on an offer, the employer is representative of no one but those who own or control the business. Put simply, workplaces are dictatorships and unions are democratic (though often flawed) organizations that challenge this dictatorship.
The strike was starting to open up discussions with friends, comrades and even pickets about the uselessness of management and how their goals clashed with the needs of those doing the work and those requiring the services. Why don’t we just dispose of management altogether and run services and businesses democratically? No wonder governments and business hate unions! They may not be revolutionary organizations, but in their struggles for workers rights, they open up questions about the fundamental assumptions underpinning the whole economic system.
"String the bastard up!"
When the forced vote was scheduled for Thursday January 8, the union organized a mass membership meeting for Monday January 5. Held at a church only fifteen minutes from my apartment and a couple blocks from the CLC headquarters, myself and one other comrade arrived at the meeting with 500 copies of a newly-updated “Fire Larry O’Brien” leaflet from the previous month. We worked hard the previous night to incorporate all we had learned from visiting the picket lines, and tried to speak to the experiences of the transit workers. We wanted something relevant to the workers, but something that also framed their struggle as something bigger and much more political.
I confess to being more than a little intimidated when arriving at the church. Several hundred workers were milling about, talking, smoking cigarettes. The mood was by no means negative, but it had a tension to it. I started handing out the leaflet hoping I wouldn’t run into any sort of opposition. Within a minute of leafleting, I came across a burly, angry-looking driver who I recognized from my years of riding the Ottawa transit system. He took a flyer and looked at it, then looked up at me cock-eyed. “FIRE LARRY O’BRIEN?!?!?!” he thundered. Hear we go I thought to myself, at which point he roared again “Fire Larry O’Brien? WE SHOULD STRING THE BASTARD UP!” It was a relief, but also inspiring. Damn, I thought. O’Brien is an idiot if he thinks the membership is going to vote for this!
Within seconds, transit workers started to crowd around me and pull flyers out of my hands. Two drivers, one of whom I later learned was an Algerian Trotskyist, approached me with big smiles, put their arms around me and led me into the church to meet the union president, André Cornellier.
I thought the crowd outside was big until I reached the main hall. It was absolutely packed – at least a thousand people were there. I later learned that about 1500 of 2300 union members attended the meeting – many others were still on picket lines because of persistent rumours about scabs.
The two drivers led me through the crowd where I met André. He was very distracted and was engaged in what seemed like a chaotic conversation with other members. The drivers got in a word and explained to him that I was a supportive student. I asked if he would come to Carleton and speak to students about the strike. He said “I have a busy schedule” and was quickly re-absorbed into his previous conversation. Whatever, I thought to myself dismissively. Maybe the press wasn’t all that wrong about him being a jerk and unable to build bridges with allies. I was dead wrong.
I left the crowd of members gathering around Cornellier, and walked down one of the aisles of the big hall handing out flyers. With my back turned to the stage at the front of the hall where the executive would be presenting the details of the offer to the membership, I heard a booming voice over the PA. I turned around to see André alone at the big table, on the mic and pointing directly at me.
“We have a student here from Carleton who is showing his support. Please give him a big welcome.”
Over a thousand people stood up as one and started cheering loudly. Within fifteen seconds my remaining flyers – probably a couple hundred – were gone. I got slapped on the back more times than I can remember, shook dozens of hands, got hugged, and was even offered a brand new winter-issue army jacket from an ex-serviceman now working as a mechanic. Everyone loved the headline “Fire Larry O’Brien!” It took me about ten minutes just to cover the fifty metres to the exit.
It's all downhill for O'Brien
I was electrified by the response, and after the meeting I fired off an email to everyone I knew explaining what had happened, and called reliable people I knew on the phone. I said we should organize a Thursday rally at Lansdowne Park where members would be voting on the offer. An ally and staff member at the CUPE national office got word to labour council about my email, and with their inside polling knowledge that the membership was at least 70 percent opposed to the offer, labour council recommended a rally on Friday to celebrate O’Brien’s spanking.
The wheels were in motion for the Friday rally. On Thursday, myself and a few other students and labour activists managed to make our way to Lansdowne where we carried a “students in solidarity with transit workers” banner and handed out more flyers. The local press was on hand and interviewed us. Excited transit workers hung around, told us stories, shared their cigarettes, spoke to the press, and generally had a good time despite the cold.
The next morning, I raced to the newspaper boxes and grabbed everything I could. The offer was rejected by 61 percent of the members. We were on the front page of the free daily Metro holding our solidarity banner. The local CTV news ran the story, including an interview with myself and some of the voting transit workers.
I made way to City Hall with the solidarity banner and was happy to see a turnout of about two hundred. I thought it was pretty good for a lunch-time rally, on a Friday, in the dead of Ottawa’s winter cold, with no public transit, and with only four days notice. The numbers were no doubt bigger because of University of Ottawa students who only had to trudge across the Laurier Bridge from their campus.
André, labour council president Sean McKenny, OFL president Wayne Samuelsson and CLC president Ken Georgetti spoke. I didn’t listen to the speeches because just as I had arrived at the rally, I was asked by Sean McKenny to speak as a student and transit user. After I delivered my speech, of which I remember little, I was again mobbed by transit workers.
My friend from the CUPE national office told me that I was the only one who said “no concessions,” which was disconcerting. But my spirits were high when a female bus driver gave me a big hug and said “your parents must be proud.” I hope so. My dad once told me that just because I was at university, I was to never believe I was somehow better than blue collar workers. I already knew that, but this reinforced that belief.
After the defeated vote, the strike dragged on for another four weeks until a tentative agreement was reached with scheduling and other major issues going to a longer-term binding arbitration process. The agreement was a consequence of O’Brien’s credibility being in tatters, and the union facing federal back-to-work legislation in Parliament.
Larry O’Brien, the millionaire mayor and former CEO, ran for re-election in 2010. Voters fired him. His vote collapsed to 65,000 (24 percent) from 141,000 (47 percent) in 2006. This should be good news for Torontonians dealing with Rob Ford. But there’s still the problem of who the next mayor is. Even though O’Brien lost to a centre-right Liberal Jim Watson, he’s much like McGuinty after the Harris/Eves years: the centrism has been shed and he is going along with the needs of the anti-tax business lobby at the expense of public services. Even so, at 63, O’Brien continues to enjoy his millions after being booted from office.
Remembering André Cornellier
André Cornellier passed away on January 15, 2011 at age 61 after fighting kidney cancer for a year. He left behind a wife, three daughters and a son. André had a tough time within the union after the strike and only narrowly won re-election as president. There was a lot of internal fallout about how the strike was conducted. These were debates and politics I was never privy to. Alain Mercier, the OC Transpo General Manager, who had little love for Cornellier, wrote “In my last discussion with André several months ago, his desire to improve conditions for his members was first and foremost over his tremendous battle in health.”
I can’t help but think that in a city where landmarks and buildings are still named after people and not just corporations, Ottawa will likely have something named after Larry O'Brien before André Cornellier. The millionaire jerk who instigated the strike and whose policies and budgets made the lives of thousands that much more difficult will be honoured in this city before we ever see anything carry the name of a union leader who refused to let his fellow union members be disrespected and attacked by their employer.
I last saw André Cornellier in April 2009, a few months after the strike ended. Because of the good relations developed between the transit union and some of us Carleton University activists, a public meeting on the state of the labour movement was organized featuring André, a Toronto trade union leader, and a co-president of the Carleton teaching assistants union CUPE Local 4600. André was his usual self, not mincing words, and calling for more solidarity between unions and a principled commitment to the needs of the membership. He didn’t stick around afterwards for beers, and seemed keen on getting home to his family.
André Cornellier was Public Enemy Number One for a couple months in Ottawa. And that’s saying something in a town rife with sleaze. But the membership stood up for what they believed in and gave him the backing he needed even when there were real reservations about how the union campaign was conducted. They all fought for each other. It was never about just one man. But I can’t imagine it was easy being André when trying to fight the employer, a hostile media, a pissed off public, City Hall and even the federal government all at once, knowing that 2300 members lives and their families are at stake.
What I learned
For me, the Ottawa transit strike was a pivotal moment in my outlook on the world. I had been a radical of one sort or another for at least decade, from my punk rock days in high school, through the dead-end years as a grocery store cashier, to my decision to return to university after a false start.
Despite all this activism, and even the victories in campus politics, there was always a feeling that it was a futile struggle. But I just ignored that feeling. I suppose it's the utopian in me that kept me going.
But it was during the Ottawa transit strike that I finally caught a glimpse of how large numbers of ordinary people, in dealing with problems forced upon them by politicians and employers wedded to a rotten economic and political system, can be transformed through struggle. It showed that even a handful of radicals with nothing but enthusiasm and humility, can have an impact on the lives of people in struggle and help push organizations like unions in directions that they otherwise wouldn’t go. I learned that there are people out there, like André and the Algerian Trotskyist and a number of other workers, who are willing to work with and even join radicals in developing (or reviving) a more effective, radical working-class movement. They just haven’t been reached yet because nobody is engaging them. There's a whole lot of potential out there. How radicals tap into this potential - largely in circumstances not of our own choosing - is the key question.
I have a lot of hope these days. We no longer live in that bitter winter of 2008-9. Three years later, the masses are in motion, toppling neoliberal dictatorships and building mass resistance to austerity in Western “democracies”. We now know mass movements do arise unexpectedly “out of nowhere” - even though behind this spontaneity there are countless unnamed activists who have been organizing endlessly to make this change happen. Occupy has also shown this to be possible in the global heart of capitalism and imperialism: the United States. Just as important, the ongoing Egyptian Revolution and the Greek resistance to austerity pose the question of how we can get out of capitalism and how we might develop a cooperative economy based on mass participatory democracy and unwavering anti-oppression politics.
I suppose the core lesson of the Ottawa transit strike is that sitting on the sidelines gets us nowhere. This is especially true of anyone who is new to activism, new to radical politics, or is looking to get back into things. Anyone who has the capacity to commit themselves, however much, to a struggle in their town (especially a strike or lockout), will find it incredibly rewarding if they approach it as an opportunity to learn how to do politics – as opposed to dictating to others. You can’t learn unless you do, and you can’t do unless you get involved.
The 2,300 Ottawa transit workers taught me how to be a better activist, a better trade unionist, a better revolutionary and - I don't think this a stretch - a better person. If you engage in struggle you can help transform others, but they will transform you, too. Regardless of how we enter into struggle, we’ll never change the world for the better if we can’t work with one another, trust one another and learn from one another.