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Feds could force Ottawa buses back on the road

End to two-month-long strike could depend on Liberal support

The federal government is prepared to end the continuing misery of Ottawa commuters by legislating striking transit drivers back to work, Labour Minister Rona Ambrose said Wednesday.

Although she cautioned that a speedy end to the nearly two-month-long dispute, which at times has paralyzed the city, will depend on co-operation with the opposition Liberals.

“When the government sees a situation where there is clearly no compromise or no flexibility being shown by either side to reach an agreement, it is our obligation to act,” she said. “I’m prepared to introduce back-to-work legislation. However, I do need the support of the opposition.”

Ambrose said there were overtures made to the Liberals about supporting back-to-work legislation. But it was unclear late Wednesday whether they would support the measure. The NDP have said they will not.

Earlier in the day, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty pressed the federal government to end the labour dispute, which comes under Ottawa’s jurisdiction because the bus routes cross the Ontario-Quebec border, into Gatineau, Quebec.

“It’s dramatically affecting our economy at a time when we can’t afford to have these kind of things get in the way,” said McGuinty, who represents an Ottawa riding in the legislature.

McGuinty’s comments came as the Amalgamated Transit Union rejected the City of Ottawa’s “revised bargaining strategy,” saying the city has failed to significantly alter its position.

They also follow attempts by McGuinty’s own government to force striking faculty at York University in Toronto back to work after an 83-day strike that locked out thousands of students.

In Ottawa, the union representing OC Transpo drivers, dispatchers and mechanics had returned to the bargaining table with city negotiators and a federal mediator Monday after city council changed its contract proposal.

But ATU International vice-president Randy Graham later said the city’s new contract offer was “show,” and the talks broke down yet again.

The city remains “entrenched” on the issues of wages and work schedules, Graham said.

City officials say its new offer included removing the $2,500 productivity bonus in return for two per cent more over the remaining two years of the contract.

Frustrated commuters, who’ve hitch-hiked, walked through repeated blizzards or been stuck in traffic gridlock, have been hoping for weeks for an end to the dispute.

As late as last week, Ambrose had refused to legislate an end to the walkout, which was estimated to be costing the local economy $4 million per week, preferring instead to let the two parties settle it on their own.

“I have heard stories that have not only shown incredible hardship from people in the Ottawa area, but this strike is clearly taking a toll on the most vulnerable,” the minister said Wednesday.

The House of Commons is scheduled to hold an emergency debate on the issue Thursday, following a Liberal party motion.

– The Canadian Press

– photo courtesy of Kasia/flickr