The first transit strike in Halifax since 1998 left thousands of people in the city scrambling to find alternate methods of transportation as Metro Transit and its unionized workers refused to budge from their positions.

More than 700 workers walked off the job just after 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, after union representatives rejected Metro Transit's latest proposal.

The rejection came after a last-minute bargaining session, as both sides of the contract dispute were called back to the table less than an hour before the midnight strike deadline.

On Thursday, both Metro Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union stuck to their respective messages.

"We understand the importance of public transportation," said Ken Wilson, the president of Local 508 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

"It's blatantly obvious that the mayor and the 23 councillors do not understand the importance. If they did, they would have kept us at the table."

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Halifax regional council held an emergency session to discuss the strike that left approximately 55,000 commuters without bus or ferry service. After the two-hour closed-door meeting, Mayor Peter Kelly said council fully supports Metro Transit's negotiating team and had not offered any direction.

By 6 a.m., many regular bus riders were walking across the bridge spanning Halifax harbour.

Scott Weldon got up early to park his car in Dartmouth so he could walk to his office in downtown Halifax.


Scheduling is the key issue for transit workers. (CBC)

"Let's settle it quick," he said of the strike. "There's really no place for me to park and it's going to get trickier as time goes on."

Gig McMullin, 62, said public transit should be an essential service.

"What is happening to all these people who need to get to work and don't have vehicles? They're stuck or could lose their jobs over this. That's the sad part," McMullin said.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter won't discuss the possibility of back-to-work legislation.

"Any discussion of this on either side actually upsets the balance that is there between the city and their workers. They have a situation that they need to deal with and I encourage them both to deal with it," he said.

Scheduling key issue

Metro Transit said during its last meeting with the Amalgamated Transit Union, it presented one offer that included rostering — where shifts are scheduled in weekly blocks — and a six per cent wage hike over three years.

A second offer included no rostering and a wage hike of 3.5 per cent over three years.

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Union representatives walked out of the meeting less than 10 minutes later.

Wilson said transit workers want to keep the flexibility they have now when it comes to scheduling. Currently, bus drivers can pick different shifts to make up a week, based on seniority.

"Over 80 per cent of my people are divorced. The flexibility in picking our work is what keeps people sometimes together, it's what allows a single parent to be involved in a child's life," he told CBC News.

"We've been picking our work cafeteria style for 104 years. Why all of a sudden in 2012, is it such a big issue?"

The transit service said it can save money by following a rostering system.


There were traffic tie-ups reported all over the city. (CBC)

"What we're asking the union to do and our opinion is that we let the union vote on which one they prefer," said Eddie Robar, the director of Metro Transit.

"We are asking them to take both offers to their union and have them vote on which one they prefer."

Earlier Thursday, Kelly said he was disappointed it came to this.

"It's unfair to the riders, it's unfair to the drivers, it's unfair to the taxpayers. This should not have taken place. There's options and opportunities that they could have brought forward and they can put things on the table too. They brought nothing to the table whatsoever," he said.

Wilson said Metro Transit "treats the public like trash."

"If we did this to the public, we'd be fired," he said. "The mayor, council, you're going to have one bad day."