OTTAWA — With the threat of federal back-to-work legislation looming, the City of Ottawa and its transit union pulled off an 11th-hour settlement Thursday to put an end to a 51-day-old citywide bus strike.
The dramatic announcement was made late Thursday afternoon by Mayor Larry O’Brien who said "the tentative agreement will send all outstanding issues to binding arbitration without any preconditions.
"The end of this strike is now inevitable and both sides agree to work hard to return the services to the citizens of Ottawa as quickly as possible."
Some buses should be running within a week, some councillors said late Thursday, although no definitive date was given.
The strike by 2,300 drivers, mechanics and dispatchers walked away from the job Dec. 10 and immediately sent Ottawa-area commuters into a congested, wintry clutter of cars and other vehicles vying for limited road space. The dispute forced Ottawans to do their Christmas shopping by car, cab and in many cases, boot.
Ottawa also hosted the World Junior Hockey championship, setting an attendance record, despite the lack of buses severely limiting access to the hockey arenas used for the event.
"It has been a difficult and acrimonious dispute to be involved in," said federal Labour Minister Rona Ambrose, who on Wednesday signalled she would introduce back-to-work legislation in the House of Commons.
"Once pressure was applied . . . the parties came together," she said. "I think this is a very positive outcome for the City of Ottawa."
Asked why Ottawa residents had to go through such a drawn-out inconvenience, representatives from both sides of the dispute said an agreement simply couldn’t be reached without the threat of legislation.
Speaking for the transit union, vice-president Randy Graham acknowledged that the two sides had no choice but to settle after it became clear that back-to-work legislation was a fait accompli.
"With the inevitability of back-to-work legislation and perhaps, the amount of time that will take, the two sides met [Thursday] afternoon and we believe it is in everybody’s best interest that we will follow what will inevitably happen and have binding arbitration," he said.
"We will work together as quickly as possible to try and get service back on the street for residents of Ottawa."
"We are just tremendously relieved that it is all over," Transport Minister John Baird said Thursday. "We had the legislation drafted, all ready to go. We had all-party support to get the legislation debated [Thursday night]. Senate leader Marjorie LeBreton was prepared to let the Senate sit and pass it. A lot of people had suffered and we just couldn’t let this go on."
The union has to take the agreement to the membership for approval and Mr. Graham said that will be done as quickly as possible.
Councillor Clive Doucet, who took something of a beating from fellow councillors for criticizing the handling of the strike, said he is just happy that it is over.
"People lost their jobs, people went hungry, people had to quit school. I will never forget this. Too many people suffered," he said.
Ottawa Citizen with files fromCanwest News Service