Monday, 30 April 2012

Cleaning House

Just when we thought it was safe to start complaining about our jobs again...

There aren't just major changes at your transit company these days, there is a revolution of new thought wiping the decks clean.

At first glance, blue collars are both surprised and in many cases quite happy to see a total overhaul of the once rancid relationship between the front line and the top floor. From the Operations standpoint, this was a rumour on the wishlist that seemed to grow legs, run a little, then deflate again over the past month or so. Drivers really didn't seem to like Blackstone whatsoever.

Glancing now, drivers are impressed with Manconi's recent house cleaning.

While I don't really want to comment on the managers themselves, as I have had no meaningful dealings with any of them, and I really don't like to see people fired, I'll offer the following thought on today's events.

Has there ever been such an outright example of the commission's distaste for Alain Mercier's transit vision than what has transpired today? Operations. Security. Marketing. Customer Service. Technology. All gone. Manconi hasn't just replaced a General Manager, he has wiped out the entire braintrust of his predecessor, and with it any of the previous luggage left over from The Time That Shall Go Unnamed.

Well, I wanted a new vision at OC Transpo. One centered around customer service, accessible service, and people-first initiatives... and here's a blank canvas to draw on.

I know a few of you union brothers and sisters read this stuff.  If you want to improve things for your membership, now's the time. Management is all ears.

I've long said that the only way to sway the public in our favour is to start with the union's commitment to our profession. Our best negotiating is done from behind the wheels of our buses. A clientele that is happy with us doesn't support the punitive actions of a mayor like Larry O'Brien. They would support us if we treated them like they deserve to be treated.

If you don't have any idea how that improves our jobs, then just come ride my bus for an afternoon. Customers on my bus make my day better, because of how I treat them. Happy customers should be the goal of anyone who calls themself a professional. Any program that management wants to initiate centered around customer service lies in our court, for us to implement. We have a four year deal in place. Time to put that focus on what's important, and heal our relationship with our customers.

We have union elections coming up in June. Let's look for and support candidates that understand these simple principles.

I think the Commission has started the bus rolling. It's up to us to steer it.

Thursday, 26 April 2012


Presto cards are on the way to Ottawa. You have no doubt seen the readers installed on a few buses, and there is no shortage of media coverage on the subject. If you listen to Lowell Yellow-and-Blue, you've no doubt heard the great conspiracy of Dalton's pet Presto scheme. Okay, welll, whatever.

I have a few concerns about how Presto will work in Ottawa, especially if the company decides to do away with other fare mediums.

Point of sale screening of fares by bus drivers will be a thing of the past. Now, some of you may think that's a great thing. It will reduce the friction of driving a bus. Let the machine do its work. What about fraud though? What is to prevent an entire family from "Family Passing" a single Presto card (With a stored monthly pass on it) instead of each member buying their own pass? There is no picture on a Presto card. Even if the company enforced picture ID with the Presto card, the card itself just flashes a green light and Presto! you're good to go. The driver has no idea if you are a student with a Presto card. The driver has no idea if you're using your brother's Presto card. There is no picture. This is a huge red flag for me. The single most effective tool to prevent pass-switching is the point-of-sale interaction with an experienced driver looking at the pass.

We have been moving the fare collection away from the driver for years now, but this is getting to the point where collecting the fare within the city itself is even too close to the driver.
To maintain a Presto card, you must always have money stored with Presto. Does that bug anyone else? It's one thing to buy a few tickets. Yes, the company gets a prepayment there too. But having an account, and EVERYONE having an account, storing money with the transit system feels, well... complicated. It feels like things can go wrong with this system. It feels too technical, too invasive to attach my name to my transit habits.

I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days. Bus drivers were pretty much the sole contact you had with the transit company. You dropped your fare in an glass enclosed box with an envelope sized slit in the top, and watched as your quarter danced down the little metal maze, chased down by two dimes clinking to the bottom. The driver, and it was okay to call him a "Driver", tore off a transfer from a stack of papers pinched together in a giant clip. That driver punched a few holes in the appropriate slots to signify what direction you were headed in. It was a simple system, but it worked.

We somehow moved from that to a GPS enabled proximity detect card based system that stores your money in Toronto, and tracks your movements for transit planning. Welcome to the future. I'm ASTAR, a robot. I can put my fare back on, you can't. So play safe.

Now before you start making the septuagenarian jokes, let me clarify that I'm not old enough to remember when radio was king, and King was Prime Minister. But my remote control had a cord, my paint had lead, my gas pump went out of it's way to say it had NO lead, and wearing a helmet was only for the Fonz... while jumping sharks.

Fare was really simple. Like trading money for a service.

Presto works in a few ways to get your hard earned money into the system.

  • You can visit a Kiosk run by the city. Here you can pay with cash, during business hours. It wont be the corner store, but it's a start. 
  • You can visit . Here you can load up your card over the internet. This will be most popular choice, IMO. No line-ups. Easy access. Unless you remember the glory days of radio.
  • You cannot buy credit on the bus, because that would be too convenient.
  • You will be replacing a monthly paper pass with an electronically stored Presto pass.

Not everyone has the means to maintain a Presto card. Tickets are a reduction medium whereby which a person can duck into a store and buy a single bus ride for a less-than-cash cost. Charities give tickets away so people can get around in a pinch. Schools give tickets away to kids. Doing away with tickets seems like a bad idea if there is no single-ride equivalent with Presto. By all accounts,  the minimum charge to load a Presto card is $10. So if you're low on funds, or don't have a credit card to pump up the company tires, it's cash for you. That's more expensive.

It seems punitive to poorer folks, folks without internet access, and folks who need a ride from a charity.

Para Transpo riders seem to be an afterthought here too. At last check, there will be no Presto on Para Transpo vehicles. I expect that monthly passes will be honoured on a good faith basis for disabled Presto-pass users.

One more concern. After topping up your Presto card, there is a 24 hour delay between your payment and the card being ready to use. Presto explains this on their website like this: 

When I load value online, why is there a delay before it reaches my card?

Your balance is stored on the card itself. Once you complete a purchase online, the details are sent to each card reader in the PRESTO network (this can take up to 24 hours). When you tap your card as part of a regular journey, the purchase is activated and your balance updated.

Now call me a troublemaker, but that's not exactly "Presto", is it? Next you'll tell us that Smart Car drivers look really stupid driving around in them. That goes for you too, "IQ" drivers. We get the connection. 

The company seems to think we'd be impressed with the idea of our account information hopping from reader to reader all over Ontario in a 24 hour period. Your money is like the Easter Bunny, travelling thousands and thousands of miles. Lucky us! But correct me if I'm wrong here. That sounds a little like bullshit. The kind of Techie type bullshit that nerds like me use to make a simple computer repair sound like a space shuttle mission. Now don't you worry though. Deductions are instant. After all, it's always harder to give than to receive. The one barrier between loading up the card before you leave for the day is the fact that all the bus readers need time to figure things out. I'm not buying it.

I'm anxious to see what OC Transpo does to use this technology in a rewarding kind of way for customers. I hope they'll exploit loyalty programs, contests, and ways to use Presto to promote transit. 

The city plans to give away 200,000 cards for free (a $6 savings).

That's a good start. More later.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


When the news of this new deal hit the newspapers, I must admit I was pretty surprised. It has not been a banner year for driving a bus in Ottawa.We had weekly barrages of bad publicity, the morale at the garage was horrible, and we all knew that the scheduling issues were actually getting worse with every booking. You haven't lived until you've been forced to work three shifts over twelve hours, one shift finishing in the east, the second shift beginning in the west, and the whole shebang ending twelve hours later 20 kms from where you parked your car. Throw in the fact that it only pays you seven hours and thirty minutes, and you're thinking about a career change. The deal is good news in a bad year. After talking with hundreds of my co-workers, I'm convinced the deal will pass... handily.

But what about this past year? Can we discuss this, Ottawa?

In George Orwell's classic novel 1984, Winston Smith spends an eternity trying to hide from the oppressive and deceitful government of Oceania. The governing system is a brutal autocracy. Each and every move made by each and every citizen is meticulously monitored by the system, which the protagonist Smith aptly calls "Big Brother". If you haven't read the book (and you should, it's pretty awesome), you likely still understand the concept of Big Brother. It has become part of the lexicon of modern society to describe oppressive and overbearing measures taken by our government, or our employers.

Great Britain has often been described as a new Big Brother state, as cameras have been installed everywhere. There is always someone watching you, through a camera in a control room, evaluating you, evaluating your actions. You are not likely to get away with a public crime in England. Big Brother watches every street.

Here in North America, it's a little different.

There are no huge banks of government agency cameras trained on your every move. You are not likely to find your biometrics in a database somewhere with a small asterisk beside that date that you had to take a whiz and did it behind the dumpster at the grocery store. Our police forces do not have access to hours of video surveillance cameras to find you. You might find that on YouTube though.

Here's a perfect example. "Phexid", (short for "Places He Explores In Dreams") sent this video to CTV News, and they put it up on their website. A bus driver stopped his bus, went into a store for coffee with passengers on his bus, came back, and that is news. It followed a bunch of other OC Transpo related videos documenting all sorts of things that didn't make the news, and a few things that made the news for good reason.

I may be a little sensitive to YouTube videos as an OC driver, but we could spend the entire day watching people who have no idea they're on camera being humiliated on YouTube. We can't seem to get enough of this stuff. We are addicted to our arrogance. We crave the publicity. We want the +1's.

We are not under the oppressive eyes Big Brother here in North America, we are training the cameras on ourselves and ratting on each other for personal schadenfreude. We capture each other on cellphone cameras and desperately hope the trending topics pick up our moment in time and run across our society like wildfire.

Unlike 1984's oppressive society, Big brother in North America is more like a whiny little brother, pulling at the pantleg of popularity.

And what's worse, in 2012, Big Brother is opt-in.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Details Are Public

The highlights of the tentative deal between ATU 279 and the City of Ottawa have been released.

ATU has published the highlights online here:

I won't comment on the full details as I know them, but my optimism from yesterday seems justified. Once the ratification vote has taken place, and the full language has been released to the media, I can comment further.

Thanks to all that emailed me your questions and requests Yes, I felt it necessary to stress the importance of getting this deal into the hands of the membership right away. Yes, I do want a long term deal ratified. No, that doesn't mean I'm lobbying for a "Yes" vote.

To the anonymous emailer: Everything in this blog is my opinion. These are my thoughts, my words. If you would like a different opinion, read somebody else's blog. If I wrote it differently, I would be lying. I respect all opinions, but do not return emails centred around insults and name-calling. That's all I will write about that.

Kudos to the negotiating committee, on both sides. I am impressed, and hopeful.

*small edit here... There has been some talk about the fact that the vote on this contract is now scheduled on the same day as the bylaw vote I wrote about in a previous post. Drivers, do the math here. This doesn't mean two votes to drive to. There can now be one property vote with two ballots. This saves you money, and ensures the bylaw vote gets a higher turnout than it would if it were *just a bylaw vote. Hitched to this wagon, the bylaw vote now gets a proper number number of ballots cast to reflect the membership's wishes... instead of the usual poor turnout.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Vote Is Set

As has been reported, the presentation of the new contract language is set for this Thursday at Lansdowne Park.

I don't have to tell you how happy I am that this contract presentation has been expedited from the two-week delay that was originally planned. This will be a healthy dose of STFU to the tinfoil hatted garage lawyers that want to stand on soapboxes and moan about the old days. If all the cards are on the table, we vote with a clear mind.

Personally, I am very optimistic that this contract will see the beginning of a long term labour peace at OC Transpo. It would be such a relief to focus on what really matters in transit... moving people.

The mood today in the garage was good. I expect that now that the mystery is gone from this negotiation, the good mood will be bordering on contagious. If you see your bus driver smiling tomorrow, don't be alarmed. He's not high, he's experiencing something he hasn't had in a few years.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Deal? Is This April First?

Well, that came out of nowhere. The City and ATU279 have reached a tentative agreement on a long term deal, one day before the old contract expires.

So is this a Done Deal? I've been fooled before. A brief history is in order here. It's a short one. Back in August of 2010, we rejected what was later described as a "fair" deal by many drivers. See, what the city wanted to do back then was rush the deal through, get it signed, then re-book all of the work shifts in the span of a week. Drivers balked at the idea of not being able to be present to book their own shifts based on seniority. The booking would have been rushed to the point where most drivers would be relying on somebody else to book their work. The fall booking is a long one, and that seemed to trump what would otherwise have been a gainful deal for drivers.

I am already hearing rumblings of distrust from the front line, but this time it's different. This time, it's the Union leadership that's being questioned. The membership voted to conduct an internal forensic audit of casual expenses at the local by current members of the executive a little over a year ago. The accusation was that some high ranking  officials were bilking the members of union dues by using loopholes in the bylaws to charge up unnecessary or fraudulent discretionary items for personal gains. As a result of the audit, charges were brought forward on two high ranking members of the union leadership. The charges were not criminal charges, only union local bylaw infractions. The forensic audit cost upwards of $120,000. Not exactly chump change. However, only a scant number of members showed up to vote on carrying the charges, so they have been dropped. But the talk in the garage remains. There is a huge distrust of the current union leadership, and that seems to be interfering with the logical interpretation of this new deal.

Details have not been released as to what exactly has been agreed upon. The current rumour suggests that we wont get a look at it for two weeks, a date that falls after a pretty important local vote on changes to the union bylaws resulting from the audit. This is important.

There needs to be a quick dissemination of information on this deal before that bylaw vote. I highly doubt that this deal is a union home-run; I would expect that it is a modestly structured type contract that reflects the current economic trends of collective bargaining. As politics will interfere with common sense at the city level, so will it be with the blue collar set. If this deal is to hang freely behind a curtain for a two weeks, the distrust of the negotiating leadership may ferment into vinegar, clouding judgement and allowing short term issues to obfuscate the long term gains of a fair deal.

Council you need to get the contract into our hands this week, before we make ourselves the April Fools.