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We've Been There, Halifax: Reflections on the 2008-09 Ottawa Transit Strike

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Strike support outside Lansdowne Park, Ottawa
Strike support outside Lansdowne Park, Ottawa

By Doug Nesbitt

Winter in Ottawa is not always friendly. And it’s just not 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 proto-Ford buffoon of a mayor, Larry O’Brien, a millionaire businessman (sound familiar?), intervened 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 (sound familiar?), 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 (sounding even more familiar?). 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 failing to deliver on his first two budgets and facing a budget deficit of $12 million, O’Brien tried to create a new public enemy by taking on the most powerful municipal workers union (sound familiar?). After months of negotiations that flew well below the local media’s radar, suddenly there was a looming transit strike in late November 2008. O’Brien had intervened, so the story goes, to try and repeal the union’s seniority rights to booking weekday routes that had existed for 106 years (Haligonians, does this sound familiar?). The City also tried to increase the eight-hour split-shift from 12.5 to 14.5 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 a central role in helping the bus drivers and mechanics of OC Transpo emerge from a dark and tragic chapter in its history. Working conditions in the 1990s were terrible. Among the many stories I learned 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 too 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 reforms that O’Brien tried to repeal when he intervened in the negotiations, predictably leading to a near-unanimous strike vote. When O’Brien refused to budge, 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's losing 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 with 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 279. 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 these details, the press largely absolved itself from its responsibility to inform the public.

The most significant incident of bad union PR was the way in which the media twisted André’s criticism of the able-bodied public. He observed to the press that the disabled and elderly users of ParaTranspo (which was not on strike) had supported previous labour actions of the ParaTranspo workers. If these vulnerable citizens, Cornellier explained, could support transit workers, so could the able-bodied. André’s words were stripped of context and presented as an attack on 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 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 like those west of Hog’s Back.

"Fire Larry O'Brien"

With little public support and 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). In a certain sense, 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 experiences with 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 grew. People were particularly angry when it came out 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 becoming 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. 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 details of Canadian industrial relations. 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. Suddenly the strike was opening up discussions with friends, comrades and even pickets about the uselessness of management and how their goals clash 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 announced 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 an air of 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.

At this point, people 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 who now worked 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 the response. 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 by the membership.

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 it reinforced the belief when he told me.

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 no doubt a consequence of O’Brien’s credibility being in tatters and the union facing 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. 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. 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 the millionaire jerk who instigated a strike and a bunch of other laws and budget cuts that made the lives of thousands that much more difficult, 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 strike ended. Because of the good relations developed between the transit union and some Carleton campus 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 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 enroll (again) for university. Despite all this activism, and even the victories in campus politics, it always felt like a futile struggle, so much so that I just ignored it. I suppose its the utopian in me that keeps me going. But it was during this 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 2300 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.

Doug Nesbitt is co-chief steward for PSAC 901, representing Queen's University teaching assistants and fellows. He is co-host of Rank and File Radio, a weekly labour news program on CFRC 101.9FM. He's also a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Queen's, writing a history of the Ontario Days of Action between 1995 and 1998. He wrote his MA thesis at Trent University on the rise and fall of the Canadian Union of Students between 1963 and 1969.

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Time for Tar and Feathers

I remember Larry O'Brien AKA Lex Luthor AKA The Bald Goblin AKA Skeletor Without the Hood.

Check out this tribute to Larry:


Thanks for the trip down memory lane. This is a great article.

Ottawa Transit Bus Strike

Yes.  This is a great article.  The lessons we learn from the prolonged strike is that the strikers are defending their standard of living.   As in the experience of the Bus Workers' strike in Halifax, rights of workers are part of the bigger picture of the City Hall which (as in the case of Halifax) are perceived to be acting in the interests of money interests which are the minority.  Strikers in Halifax, for the most part, want to end the strike so they can be paid enough to support their families.  However the Mayor Kelly and Council, with the exception of two Councillors, are stalling and preventing the strike from ending.   In fact millions of dollars are being made for a few people to prolong the strike.  They, effectively, have taken away our public transit system which allows students to get to the schools and people to live their daily lives without hassle.

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