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.


  1. That situation must be incredibly frustrating.

    When I left truck driving behind, I did it gleefully. I had several bad experiences during my time as a truck driver, some at one, non union job, where we were subject to the whims of management, and some at the last job I had, a teamster position.

    It was really difficult to watch people be elected to union office, people who would talk the talk, people who would make sense when you spoke with them, and not seem ego driven, and seemed to have the strength of character to not become a "friend of management" once elected, only to watch them put their feet up almost the minute they walked into that shop stewards office.

    I wish you, your brothers and sisters, and the city of Ottawa the best in getting this matter resolved.

  2. It sure is frustrating to see serious issues derailed by interpersonal problems. Union life!