OC Transpo union threatens strike over 'witch hunt'

OC Transpo's biggest union is threatening a work stoppage unless management improves working conditions for transit employees.

Operators claim no help from management amid stressful work conditions

OC Transpo's biggest union is threatening a work stoppage unless management improves working conditions for transit employees.

In the wake of the firing of an OC Transpo bus driver on Monday for yelling expletives at, and threatening, a mildly autistic teen passenger, the Amalgamated Transit Union said the workplace atmosphere has become so toxic that some form of job action could be taken.

ATU 279 president Garry Queale said relations with management have never been so poor, and his members are fed up.

Their message to the higher-ups, he wrote in a memo to union members: "Stop the witch-hunt against our operators, or action will be taken."

The incident involving the driver's angry verbal outburst against a teen was caught on video and posted to YouTube, leading to the dismissal of the driver.

But Queale said the feeling among already-frustrated drivers that they must also now fear losing their jobs if they can't keep their emotions in check is only making things worse.

So the union is hitting back with a threat of their own.  

"With the flick of my fingers, we could end up with having the buses not being out on the road," Queale said.

Rude passengers, cutbacks frustrate drivers

OC Transpo employees said they're regularly subjected to verbal abuse and taunts from passengers, and after cutbacks and anger over route changes, they feel they take the brunt of customer dissatisfaction without backing from management.

"You just lose it sometimes," one driver told CBC News, speaking about the stress of the job.

On Monday, the same day one driver was sacked following the posting of the YouTube video that showed him swearing and threatening a teen, another driver abandoned his bus after a passenger complained about being 40 minutes late.  

And on Thursday, 16-year-old Connor Gore said he was riding the Route 164 bus with three senior citizens when the driver announced he was not taking them further, and ordered all the passengers off.

The biggest union representing OC Transpo said Thursday that management is worsening already-stressful working conditions for operators with a "witch hunt" against employees. ((CBC))

As for the drivers, some told CBC News they've been threatened, spat on and even assaulted by customers in the past, all while working the longest hours they've ever had.

"It hits home. It doesn't feel good to get comments like that, especially when I work so hard for customer service," said Mike Mathurin, another driver. "Literally, I work hard for customer service. I enjoy my job, in fact."

Add to the mix a rise in complaints and the possibility that any of them could be filmed at any time for distribution online, and workers say they feel like lightning rods for passenger rage.

"Lightning rod is a good term to use because you never know whether lightning is going to strike, or where," Queale said.

But Linda Duxbury, an expert in organizational health, warned the union's threat to strike is bound to ratchet up emotions.

'Take a breath'

Duxbury, who teaches at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, said Queale's words don't seem to serve any purpose other than further inflaming tensions.

"What we need to do is we all need to take a breath, we all need to step back," she said. "We all need to say, 'You know, this is not going to go get us anywhere.'"

Although Duxbury said she understands the difficult work conditions, talk of a work stoppage risks eroding sympathy from passengers.

OC Transpo head Alain Mercier did not return CBC's calls Thursday, but negotiations between OC Transpo and the union are set to begin Dec. 8. The union said talks this time are likely to focus more on improving workplace conditions than salary.

In the mean time, the union is telling drivers to stop their buses and call proper authorities any time they feel threatened.