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48 days, and counting…

That’s how long residents of Ottawa have been without public transit, as of Monday.  Approximately 2,300 bus drivers, mechanics and…

By Amelia Bellamy-Royds , in The Numbers Game , on January 26, 2009 Tags: , , , , , ,

That’s how long residents of Ottawa have been without public transit, as of Monday.  Approximately 2,300 bus drivers, mechanics and dispatchers went on strike on December 10, 2008.  The only good news is that, for the first time in over a month, the two sides are talking to each other again.

For residents of the city who have been walking, car-pooling, and cabbing to get around, there are probably only two numbers that matter on a daily basis:  the price of gas and the windchill factor.  But if you feel like looking into how numbers can be used and abused for political purposes, statements from the two sides of the debate are a good place to start.

The spin game – between the Amalgamated Transportation Union (ATU), Local 279 on the one hand and the City of Ottawa and OC Transpo management on the other – has got so bad that even when the two sides agree on a number, they can make it sound like they don’t.

On January 8, 2009, members of the union voted on the city’s latest offer, as they’d been ordered to do by the federal Minister of Labour.  A little after midnight, representatives from both sides emerged from counting to announce that the strike was still on.  This is how a CBC News online story described the results:

While both the city and union agreed on the outcome of the vote, the two sides were at odds over the numbers.

The union said 75 per cent of the 2,033 members who cast ballots rejected the offer, which included a 7.25 per cent wage increase over three years and a $2,500 productivity bonus.

The city said that 64.4 per cent of the 2,353 transit drivers, dispatchers and maintenance staff eligible to cast ballots turned the offer down.

Huh?  They were both observing the same vote, how could the results be different?

Well, of course, if you get out your calculator, you’ll find that the two sets of numbers aren’t really “at odds” – they’re just spun in different directions.  The percent depends on whether you consider all the people who could have voted, or only those who did.  After catching up on their sleep, somebody at the CBC dug a little deeper, and the next day posted these complete numbers:

‘Yes’ ballots 517
‘No’ ballots 1,516
Spoiled ballots 12
Total ballots cast 2,033
Total eligible voters 2,353

The unbiased numbers were from the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which had been supervising the vote.

It’s a little harder to find unbiased numbers when it comes to the issues at dispute in the strike.

A key point of contention in contract negotiations has been a city proposal to change the way bus drivers are assigned to their schedules.  Since 1999, bus drivers have been able to choose their own shifts; drivers with the highest seniority (most years on the job) get first pick.

Because demand for bus service is greater during morning and afternoon rush hours than in the middle of the day, many drivers work split shifts with mid-day breaks.  Currently, drivers pick their morning and afternoon shifts separately.  This causes two different problems for the city.  Some senior drivers pick shift combinations that regularly result in overtime pay, adding costs to the city as well as concerns about whether these drivers are getting enough sleep.  At the same time, low-seniority drivers often end up with a mix of early morning and late evening shifts, causing both safety concerns and also added costs if the shifts available don’t meet the minimum hours of work guaranteed in the drivers’ contracts.  The city wants the power to optimize combinations of shifts and have the drivers pick from the complete schedules.

Early on in the strike, the general manager of OC Transpo was quoted as saying the new system would save $3.4 million per year, and eliminate the need to buy 20 new buses.  The union argues that they could save that and more by investing more in in-house maintenance work.  More recent city documents have focused on safety risks from drivers not getting enough sleep between evening and morning shifts rather than monetary savings.

A cynic (like me) might point out one reason management stopped touting the $3.4 million per year projected savings from the scheduling change:  it looked a little disproportionate compared to the $3 million per week they said they would save because of the strike itself!

That second number is also questionable.  The transit company may be saving fuel and wages, but the total impact on the city budget is variable.  On the one hand, they are pulling in more money in parking fares and fines, on the other hand, they’re spending more in enforcement.  Furthermore, the city has spent at least $200,000 on taxi chits and other support for low-income residents, although that sum seems almost insignificant compared to the other numbers being thrown around.  In addition, the city will have to spend unspecified amounts of money to draw back transit riders once the strike is settled.  And there will be rebates of fares paid for useless bus passes and maybe even of property taxes.

As a bit of history, it should be noted that when bus drivers in Greater Vancouver went on strike for four months in 2001, initial calculations predicted that Translink (the regional transportation agency) would save $17 million.  Instead, it ended up deeper in deficit.

Regardless of how sketchy the numbers are, any talk of city savings from the strike isn’t likely to gain council and the mayor much support from residents paying for the lack of transit in their own time and money.  A group of local economic analysts have estimated that the cost of the strike on the Ottawa economy has been approximately $8 million per day.

None of these numbers can be verified or refuted the way a count of ballots can be.  Regardless of the outcome of the strike, it will be months before its impact on the city budget can be fully assessed.  It will be years before the effect of any contract changes – nevermind changes in Ottawans’ transportation choices – can be factored in.

In the meantime, there is one number residents of Ottawa don’t want to hear:  128 days.

That’s how long the 2001 Vancouver bus strike lasted before drivers were sent back to work by provincial legislation.