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February 14, 2011 / mike54martin

OC Transpo: No Choice But to Change


                             OC Transpo: No Choice But to Change

It comes as little surprise to Ottawa commuters who were frozen out from the Ottawa bus system last year that the peer review of OC Transpo found that Ottawa’s public transit system lacks a labour relations strategy. Nor does it come as a great shock to people with a familiarity in labour relations that it looks like we are heading down the same path in negotiations this year.

The signs of distress at OC Transpo are not new and reflect a long history of low employee morale and friction between management and the employees who drive and maintain the bus fleet. The most glaring examples of the dysfunctional labour relations climate at OC Transpo are an overbearing employer and an intransigent union but under the surface some real tension exists that must be dealt with if there is ever to be labour peace at our bus system.

First of all on the union side they appear to have dug themselves a pretty good foxhole from which they lob the occasional grenade and sometimes charge to the front on the offensive. But it is important to remember that they have learned these tactics from their employer. Some people claim that you get the union you deserve and in OC Transpo’s case that seems to ring true. The union is brittle and overly sensitive but in many cases they have adopted this strategy as a survival technique.

It is equally important to remember that in the collective bargaining milieu it is the union’s job is to protect its members and whether we like them or not they seem to have been successful in this regard, and they have at least the majority support of their membership. For those who are calling for the heads of the union leadership, call away, but the only ones who have that power is the membership and they have shown no inclination to do so. As far as getting rid of the union, once again this is not a likely scenario and even if you did the employee relations problems at OC Transpo would not disappear with them.

On the management side they have succeeded in doing what many thought impossible, they have made a bad situation worse. We are not privy to inside data on employee morale but even a casual observer from the outside can notice a few disturbing trends.  A study of dysfunctional organizations a few years ago found that despite being paid relatively fair wages and a good benefit and compensation plan employees were unhappy because they didn’t feel that they were being treated fairly by their employer, they weren’t give any credit for the success of the organization and/or they were worried about job security.

All of these factors appear to be the norm at OC Transpo and coupled with an evident failure to communicate as also noted by the peer review the employees seem to have developed a sense of grievance against their employer and that there is an “us and them” environment that has developed as a result. It may not be possible for management to change the union at OC Transpo but they can change this climate.

So where to begin? It is probably and unfortunately likely too late to change the labour relations climate at OC Transpo before the end of the current round of collective bargaining but our new Mayor and our newly minted Transit Commission can start a new dialogue with the public and indirectly to OC Transpo employees. The Mayor has already begun this task with his public statement that referred to the desire of all parties to reach a collective agreement. That is a much preferable route than our previous Mayor’s threat to lock out employees in the summer to prevent a winter strike. In addition and at a minimum the Transit Commission also needs to tell OC Transpo management to make improving labour relations a priority for the up-coming year.

But the real change has to happen within the management cadre at OC Transpo. Yes, both sides have to change, but it is in their and the public interest for them to lead the change process. This has to begin with an honest attempt to create a culture of respect at OC Transpo. That means that everyone’s role is honoured and everyone from senior managers to clerical staff to drivers and mechanics, and yes even union leaders are given an opportunity to participate and share in developing a new way forward.

It also means a new style of internal communications at our transit service, one that features offering information and consultation with both unions and employees before decisions are taken. It means creating new vehicles and mechanisms for employees and their representatives to make suggestions for improving OC Transpo and a safe way for people to raise issues like abuse, harassment and bullying in the workplace.

Both these initial steps should be taken immediately and regularly reviewed to see if there is progress being made. If they are successful then the rewards will be self-evident. We will have happy employees opening the bus doors for us in the morning and a growing sense of trust between all partners in the system that can only mean an improved transit service for all users. As taxpayers we should also see a reduction in the transit budget as costly arbitration and court cases are avoided and productivity increases.

Will it work? We don’t really have a choice but to try. OC Transpo can change or we will be condemned to labour strife and strikes forever. And quite frankly it is too cold in Ottawa to even contemplate another bus strike.

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