Striking Ottawa transit workers will vote on the most recent contract proposal from the city despite the offer's rejection by union leaders.

Federal Labour Minister Rona Ambrose ordered the vote Wednesday after a request from the City of Ottawa, which hopes the ballot process will end the three-week-old strike that has shut down bus and O-train light-rail service at OC Transpo, the city-owned and run transit company.

Labour Minister Rona Ambrose can force a union to hold a vote on a contract offer under provisions in the Canada Labour Code:

"108.1 (1) Where notice to bargain collectively has been given under this Part, and the Minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest that the employees in the affected bargaining unit be given the opportunity to accept or reject the offer of the employer last received by the trade union in respect of all matters remaining in dispute between the parties, the Minister may

(a) on such terms and conditions as the Minister considers appropriate, direct that a vote of the employees in the bargaining unit to accept or reject the offer be held as soon as possible; and

(b) designate the [Canada Industrial Relations] Board, or any other person or body, to be in charge of conducting that vote."

"I am concerned about the impacts that this work stoppage is having on the travelling public who have no other readily available mode of transport, particularly the elderly and people who are dependent on this service," Ambrose said in a statement.

"Therefore I have decided  to provide an opportunity to the employees in the bargaining unit to accept or reject the last offer received from the employer."

Ambrose said she considered submissions from both sides before reaching the decision.

Around 2,300 drivers, dispatchers and maintenance staff represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279 walked off the job on Dec. 10.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board has been asked to conduct the contract vote "as soon as possible" and no later than Jan. 9. The offer going to a vote was tabled by the city on Dec. 23.

OC Transpo falls under federal jurisdiction rather than Ontario jurisdiction because some routes pass into Quebec.

Board to consider essential-service order

Ambrose is also asking the industrial relations board to look at agreements between the City of Ottawa and the union regarding essential services. The board has the power to make orders and confirm or change existing essential-services agreements.

Mayor Larry O'Brien called the forced vote a "very solid step" and said he was happy that union members will have the opportunity to voice their opinion on the city's offer, which he described as "fair and reasonable."

"I believe that once the majority of members of the ATU take a look… there will be a very significant interest in the offer we have on the table," O'Brien said at a news conference following Ambrose's announcement.

However, when asked whether he was confident the offer would be accepted, he responded that he doesn't "think it's the time to be confident."

Union leader 'very disappointed'

O'Brien said he doesn't think there will be any further bargaining.

Andre Cornellier, president of ATU Local 279, said he was "very disappointed" with Ambrose's "unprecedented" decision.

"We still believe strongly that the membership will reject the second offer," he said, adding that he believes workers will "react in a different negative way" to the forced vote.

The two sides haven't met since the most recent round of talks broke off on the night of Dec. 23.

The union broke off the talks, saying the city wasn't being flexible about its new scheduling proposal, the main issue of disagreement between the two parties.

The union has said the proposal takes away some of its drivers' flexibility to arrange their schedules to accommodate their personal lives. The city has said the proposal would be safer, fairer and more cost-effective.

O'Brien said last week that he believes the majority of drivers will think the city's offer is fair and that the union executive is "out of touch" with the interests of its members, the city and OC Transpo.

However, the union has said members will reject the offer. Union leaders have maintained that the city's latest offer is very similar to the original offer rejected by union members when they voted 98 per cent in favour of the strike — an assertion the city denies.