What is prolonging Ottawa’s airport taxi dispute?
by Joel Harden
CUPE Local 4600 Chief Steward and delegate to the Ottawa & District Labour Council
If you believe the mainstream media, Ottawa’s airport is under siege by a an unruly mob of tax drivers since the lockout began on August 11. For the most shrill commentators, it’s a full-on “crisis”.
At issue is a labour dispute now entering its fifth week, where drivers are refusing a 400 percent fee increase demanded by Conventry Connections (the main employer for airport cabs) and the Ottawa Airport Authority (OAA). Both want new levies amounting to $4.50 per taxi customer.
From a driver’s perspective, this amounts to almost $1300/month, a dramatic increase from the roughly $380/month charged before.
When cabbies refused, Conventry locked out its airport drivers (organized by UNIFOR Local 1688), and began conducting business with strikebreaking cabs. That led to tense (even violent) situations as cabbies struggle to maintain very modest incomes.
When Airport officials got a far-reaching court injunction, cabbies shifted their focus to impacting Ottawa’s airport parkway. They protested in large numbers and recently (on September 8) blocked the road. When drivers watched strikebreakers cross picket lines, tempers flared, and a cab was vandalized.
Amed Madi, President of the airport taxi drivers with UNIFOR 1688, offered the following reaction: “This is not something we want to happen, but people are frustrated,” Madi said. “They’ve been out of work for nearly four weeks and nobody seems to care about them.”
These words speaks volumes to the state of labour in Canada’s capital city. In pitched situations, unions typically band together. In Ottawa, that coordination is supposed to happen through the Ottawa and District Labour Council (ODLC), which describes itself as “the voice of working people in the Ottawa area since 1872.”
But how has the ODLC publicly responded to the taxi lockout? To date, by sending out two emails to its affiliates. Both emails emphasize support for UNIFOR 1688 members, and encourage unions to contact various public officials.
That’s hardly enough. In other strikes or lockouts, the ODLC has organized public rallies and picket line BBQs. They’ve publicly defended a union’s right to picket or strike in difficult circumstances (e.g.: like the lengthy strike by Ottawa’s city bus drivers and mechanics in 2008-9).
Today, for UNIFOR 1688, the ODLC is almost invisible; as one driver put it to me, “it’s the sound of one hand clapping”. Adding insult to injury, members of UNIFOR 1688 were welcomed to the ODLC’s recent labour day events by Mayor Jim Watson, the same person claiming to be“fed up” with “reckless, dangerous” taxi protests.
Meanwhile, taxi drivers are attacked by greedy employers, angry media commentators, and unregulated multinational firms like Uber. All of these forces conspire to batter, or break, the resolve of UNIFOR 1688.
That won’t happen given the bravery, strength and resolve of Ottawa’s taxi drivers. The union density of cabbies in Ottawa is the highest nation-wide, and that’s because drivers have always been willing to fight for their rights.
But to win their current struggle, they need more vocal support. It’s time for the ODLC to show public leadership to help end this dispute. The time for email pleas is over. The time for public solidarity is now.
Editors note: On Wednesday September 16, the ODLC endorsed the rally below
Friday, noon September 18
Ottawa City Hall (Lisgar side)
Organized by Solidarity Against Austerity