Beyond the Headlines

Strike 'ultimatum'

Posted: Mar 1, 2012 11:05 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 1, 2012 11:05 AM ET
As we enter the fifth week of the transit strike, it's a good time to remind ourselves not to get too caught up in the growing rhetoric coming from both sides.
 
The latest example is the city's "ultimatum" to the transit union. Stung by the 78% rejected of its latest "final" offer the city struck back with this threat: if the union doesn't accept the deal by 11:59pm Friday, then everything is off the table.
 
In some labour disputes an ultimatum really is an ultimatum.

Just ask the workers at the Caterpillar plant in London, Ontario. When they walked out refusing to accept wage concessions, the company simply shut the plant and moved production to the United States. Closer to home, the unionized workers at the Bowater Mersey Mill had to accept job cuts and concessions, or face the very real possibility their plant would be closed permanently.
 
But in this case, unless the city is prepared to shut down the transit service and move it to Moncton, the "ultimatum" rings hollow. It sounds like when a parent tells their child "if you don't do your homework you'll never watch television again." Even as they are saying it, both the parents and the child know that is never going to happen.
 
So even if the city plays fairy godmother and turns its "final" offer into a pumpkin come midnight Friday, it doesn't really mean anything. At some point, both sides will return to the bargaining table, and when they do, most if not all of what's in the current offer will magically re-appear.
 
Which brings up the other term that we should all read with a huge grain of salt. Final offer. Whenever a strike is looming, and certainly when we are in the middle of one, the term "final" is inevitably attached to whatever offer is currently on the table. In labour relations there is an old saying that goes something like "the only final offer is the one that's signed by both sides."
 
Given the growing acrimony between Metro Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union, it's hard to see how they will get to that point. But they will.
 
For the thousands of transit users, who are about to enter a second month without a way to get around, the only question that really matters is - how long will that take?
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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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