Nov 19, 2009

London transit strike underway

London's first transit strike in almost three decades didn't seem to affect the morning commute, police said.

London's bus drivers, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 741, walked off the job at midnight.

Many expected those who usually take the bus to school or work in the morning – students, workers, business owners – to tie up traffic using vehicles.

There were no unusual backups during the morning rush-hour, said London Police Const. Amy Phillipo.

Those who usually take the bus were forced to walk, taxi, bike, carpool or work from home.

Taxi companies in the city said they were prepared for more calls but they didn't come.

"People are starting to realize now that no bus is coming to pick them up but this morning there weren't that many more," said a dispatcher with Aboutown Transportation.

Another dispatcher at U-Need-A taxi service also said there weren't that many more calls this morning.

"It's surprising," he said.

London Transit bus drivers were on the picket line as thousands of Londoners scrambled to find a way to work, school and appointments on the first day of the first transit strike in nearly 30 years.

Bus drivers and other workers were on the picket line at the LTC headquarters on Highbury Ave. this morning with strike signs, getting some support from passing motorists who honked their horns and waved.

City streets were heavy with rush-hour traffic and the lack of buses was noticeable as union leaders and company officials hit the radio talk shows to defend their positions.

At 7 a.m. there was no sign of hitchhikers at major intersections, although there were many young people – high school, college and university students – seen legging their way to school on sidewalks.

Last-ditch talks to avert a bus strike broke down yesterday morning and no new talks are scheduled.

Management and the union blamed each other for the strike.

At two hastily-called news conferences yesterday, a visibly frustrated Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best said the London Transit Commission (LTC) offer was "more than fair," at a time when London has Canada's second-highest jobless rate.

Later, the LTC released documents showing it had offered the union a 9% increase during three years, including an 8.3% wage hike and improved dental and disability benefits and working conditions.

The LTC said the union demanded 20% in wages and benefits during three years.

DeCicco-Best slammed the demands as irresponsible with the city still mired in a recession.

"These numbers are staggering, I have people who have trouble putting food on the table, who have trouble finding a place to live," she said.

But in an interview, Pat Hunniford, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 741, said it was the LTC management that refused to budge.

"We made some pretty big concessions from where we started," he said.

Hunniford said the 20% increase in wages and benefits demanded by the union was an "old" offer and the union made a verbal offer closer to 12% by the time talks broke off.

He said the union's wage demands were flexible and the two sides were only about 50 cents apart. But the talks broke down on benefit issues including short-term disability and the dental plan.

Hunniford said even with the union demands, the LTC workers are well behind their counterparts in other cities in wages and benefits.

In an echo of the bitter 2001 garbage strike, DeCicco-Best signalled the city is ready to wage a public-relations battle with the union.

She said the public should know the full cost to the LTC and taxpayers of meeting all the union demands.

"The community has a right to know what led to the strike and why they walked away from the deal on the table," said DeCicco-Best.

Hunniford said he would be making the rounds of radio talk shows tomorrow morning to make the union's case

"It comes down to how long the citizens will tolerate this and when city hall will step in stop this," he said.

About the only thing the two sides agree on is that the strike will cause hardship for thousands of students, seniors and working people who rely heavily on the transit system.

A transit strike in Ottawa last winter lasted two months.

"We have seen what this has done in other cities and we simply did not want to be there," said DeCicco-Best.

The last bus ran at midnight Sunday.

DeCicco-Best said the city will try to help residents cope by posting information on its website about carpooling and urging employers to be patient especially in the early days of the strike.

The LTC also is promoting carpooling, walking and cycling.

Both the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College, whose students pay mandatory fees for LTC bus passes, are putting contingency plans into place.

Hunniford said only a handful of the 450 union members were around for the last strike in 1980 that lasted 10 days.

But Hunniford, whose father worked for the LTC for 37 years, remembers a nine-week strike in 1975.

"I remember being a kid here and that was the year without Christmas," he said.

The LTC normally handles about 75,000 to 80,000 passenger trips daily.

Specialized transit services, including para transit, will continue to operate despite the strike.


TomW said...

20% in wages and benefits?!? Inflation is currently running at roughly 0%...

Andy said...

You are right 20% seems excessive. The union is not looking good this time around. That's what happens when your wages are lower than other transit authorities and you try to catch up. God help us if school bus drivers ever try to catch up. You would see demands of 300% to 400%. They are truly under paid.