Friday, 17 April 2015

The Referendum

As expected, ATU members have voted down the latest contract offer from the City of Ottawa. I wrote earlier this week about the tumultuous relationship between ATU president Craig Watson and his membership, and it seems as if my prediction was accurate.

I don't feel good about being right.

The meetings to present the contract were awful. Folks were angry and vocal, and the presentation soon became secondary to the incendiary language that degenerated into finger waving and shouting.

Througout all of this, the one theme remained constant.

Drivers were not voting on the city's offer.

Drivers were voting in a referendum on Craig Watson's presidency. For all of the rhetoric about procedure, and secrecy, and leverage, it still boiled to the stroppy masses making heated and ridiculous statements against the lightning rod on the roof of the Union Hall. This isn't the first secret negotiation, nor is it the first time the executive has disagreed with the negotiating committee. It is however the first time I've seen it this bad.

Strangely enough,  Mr Watson's media release on the voting results to the membership seemed quite ununionlike, choosing to apologize to the city and warn members of the future of regret they are about to face, a far cry from the usual labour position that a union might conceed after a contract rejection, namely that most unions would say that they would would consult the membership and try again, and it would usually be signed "In solidarity". The usual union rhetoric was absent, and read more like a concession than a directive on negotiating. ATU has always sent out a rally cry after a contract has been rejected.

Mr Watson's letter to his membership was a scolding that punctuated his strained relationship with the membership.

I think that at this point, if I were president, I would respect the decision of  this referendum, and step down for the solidarity of the membership.

The good news for everyone is that ATU elections are coming soon, in June I believe, and all of this infighting should be over. The current CBA lasts through April 2016, and if the city were to table another offer before then, I can only imagine that members would be much more open to actually reading an offer produced by a different executive.

I feel with great certainty that the membership is in a very peaceful relationship with the City, and that the appetite for the kinds of changes that lead to job actions are simply not present in 2015.

I also believe that many in the membership are deeply sorry to have thrust internal issues into the well being of our transit ridership.

This is the last time I write about union politics.

Thanks for your ear.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

I had an exchange this morning with a few union members who felt I was too harsh on Craig Watson.

It's tough to explain, but in all honesty, I really have nothing against Watson, the executive, the union, the members, the City, or anyone else involved in this organization. I don't attend union meetings. I'm not involved with committees, or politics. I'm a steering wheel manipulation engineer. I drive people around, and those people are all I really care about, deep down.

The way this membership feels about its union is what I wanted to convey to the public. I feel that the public is owed an explanation if this contract offer gets rejected. The folks I pick up on a daily basis have a stake in Ottawa transit. I think it's important that they know that it's not them, it's us. It's not about money, it's about us. It's not about the City, it's about us.

For all of the anger directed at Craig right now, there are other things the membership should know about his tenure. Craig was instrumental in the passing of Bill s221, and used the ad space on OC Transpo buses to advertise the law. This is the law that makes assaulting a transit operator an aggravating factor in sentencing. Craig negotiated a deal to see cameras installed on all new buses, something that many drivers have been lobbying hard for. It was during this executive tenure that de-escalation training became a part of operator training. In the past three years, over 25000 hours were added to run and recovery times on the scheduling front, although this is not the scheduling issue that drivers complain about the most.

The point is this: It's not all bad at ATU local 279. The membership is fuming mad about meetings that only thirty or so members even bother to attend each month. 

The personal issues with the local really need to be checked at the door before tomorrow's meeting. We cannot let this meeting devolve into a Gongshow and not fully explore the contract.

The city began this negotiation with an offer, and like it or not, Craig's job requires him to sit down and listen to it, then present it to the members. 

It's time for the membership to grow up a little, and do the same. Read the offer, and vote on its merit.

Let cooler heads prevail.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Dysfunctional Gumption

You have no doubt heard by now that ATU local 279 has reached a tentative deal with the city of Ottawa on an early contract for its bus drivers and mechanics. There is a pretty good chance that you learned about this deal in the same newscast that drivers and mechanics learned about it. In fact, no one knew that negotiations had begun, including members of the ATU executive.

There is a meeting to present the offer to members on Monday, and a ratification vote set for Tuesday. If the mood around the property is any kind of indication, this contract offer is in serious jeopardy of being rejected, and it's not for the usual reasons.

To describe Craig Watson's tenure as president of Local 279 as tumultuous would be a gross understatement. Watson was elected on the platform of fixing our schedules. Members had high hopes of convincing the city to take a serious look at how they use their manpower, and how that use affects everything from absenteeism to customer service. Tired of seeing the city inexplicably focus on breaking up eight hour shifts into smaller bits and reassembling them into split shifts spread over twelve hours, the membership hoped a scheduling guru such as Craig could set them straight and help the company see the monetary value of investing in quality-of-life issues such as scheduling.

What the membership feels it received from Craig Watson however, is something completely different.

Craig Watson seems to have lost the support of his executive. His reputation among the membership seems centered around a Machiavellian grip on meetings, often using Roberts Rules to squash motions at meetings rather than the usual debate and vote tactics that are the true spirit of union politics. If you have never been shot down at a meeting by the use of Roberts Rules, you might not understand the frustration of being sent to the corner and ignored. Roberts Rules are the simple procedural rules of meetings that are designed to enforce order and conserve time. When those rules are used to suppress ideas and motions however, it can be a very belittling experience.

Members have been removed from meetings, even by use of police. Issues that might have progressed to grievance procedures in the past are perceived as having been ignored at meetings, which have members accusing Watson of trying to be too conciliatory to management.  We all remember Andy Cornellier, and members seem to miss his pitbull nature.

When Norm MacDuff began a work refusal over an assault, the union did not support it. Whether or not you support the MacDuff refusal, and HRDC did, it's simply mind-boggling that the union didn't jump on the chance to lead the way against transit assaults. MacDuff was assaulted on his bus about two years ago. Upon his return to work, he began a Health and Safety refusal to perform his duties stating that the employer was not doing enough to protect him from being assaulted. HRDC agreed with MacDuff, and ordered the company to come up with a strategy to prevent and protect drivers from being assaulted. In talking with union leaders at other Canadian properties about MacDuff's case and Bill s221, the common response was that this sort of case is exactly what unions are built for.

A union member being supported by a government agency in a work refusal based on industry-wide safety concerns where the local could support industry-wide changes on an industry-wide problem is the kind of case that unions dream of taking on.

Not Craig Watson's ATU local 279, however. Months prior to MacDuff's assault and refusal, Craig had removed Mr. Macduff from a committee over conduct issues, and if you ask the membership, that bad blood carried over to the union's position on the work refusal. Among the staunchest of union supporters, protecting drivers from assaults is this generation's number one labour issue, and Local 279 could have led the industry. Instead, it seems to have dissolved into a fizzle of bad personalities dousing a petty argument. Norm MacDuff is still refusing to work, and the local is still on the sidelines.

This local is the very height of dysfunction. Which brings us to this contract offer.

The executive (excluding Craig Watson) has written a letter of non support to the membership. The letter was not a simple "Vote No" kind of deal, it was a scathing letter of derision aimed squarely at Mr. Watson. The letter accuses Craig of singlehandedly negotiating a contract without input or approval from either the membership or the executive, and doing so for self serving reasons. The signatures on the letter encompass years of union experience and trust from the membership, and will undoubtedly sway the vote on Tuesday.

In talking with the membership, the common theme is that it feels like they've been duped by Roberts Rules all over again. To put it bluntly, drivers are furious.

I honestly feel sorry for the city of Ottawa. I have absolutely no doubt that the offer they are tabling is a fair offer. I have absolutely no doubt that the city has bargained in good faith, and that a great deal of hard work went into this offer. I have absolutely no doubt that the city is optimistic about how labour relations have progressed since 2007. The city has made OC Transpo a better place to work in spite of the scheduling problems we are having with the Keller decision.

The problems with this contract offer have nothing to do with the offer itself. The city has stepped into the family food fight, and the mashed potatoes seem to be flying from everywhere.

I just hope that on Tuesday if this offer gets shot down, that the taxpayers understand that it was shot down with friendly fire, and that Mom and Dad still love each other.

We just need to be apart for awhile.