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TRANSIT STRIKE LOOMS IN TORONTO

Millions of Toronto area commuters are on edge this weekend, waiting to see if the Toronto Transit Commission's union will make good on its threat to shut down Canada's largest public-transit system Monday morning.

Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, announced Friday afternoon that he was walking away from contract talks with the TTC and taking his 8,400 members out on strike.

The union had set a deadline of noon Friday for the TTC to come up with an "acceptable" offer or face a strike Monday, paralyzing the transit system that collects about 1.4 million fares each weekday and potentially clogging Toronto's streets and roads with thousands of extra cars.

Kinnear said the TTC's offer failed to deliver the minimum 3 percent wage increase that his union wants. He said the union was also concerned about contracting out TTC maintenance work and scheduling issues, and angry about years of underfunding for public transit.

"We are tired of having to take the blame for government shortsightedness. We are tired of having to collect higher and higher fares from our passengers, most of whom are working people like us," Kinnear said.

But TTC chairman Howard Moscoe said the TTC's offer, worth $160 million over four years, was "respectful" and included wage increases of 2.75 percent in 2005, 3 percent in 2006 and 3.25 percent in 2007. It also included improvements to pensions and benefits.

Moscoe said he was mystified by union concerns over contracting out maintenance work, which he thought had been resolved.

"The TTC has no plans to contract anything out, we have not had plans to contract anything out," he said. ". . . We contract out less than any other transit system on this continent that I'm aware of."

Round-the-clock bargaining had been going on before Friday's deadline.

Moscoe stressed that the TTC was willing to talk "every minute of the weekend" to reach a deal. "I just plead with the union: Come back and keep talking. There's no reason to let 48 hours of silence ensue," he said.

While Kinnear had said that Friday was a "firm deadline," he also said he would take a call from Mayor David Miller to discuss the dispute. Asked if a strike could still be averted, the union leader said: "Anything's possible."

Friday, Miller wouldn't discuss intervening personally in the dispute. But he urged both sides to return to the bargaining table.

"I don't believe a strike is necessary," Miller told reporters. "I believe that if people get back to the table, with goodwill and hard work, they can settle this."

Miller also said that if a deal cannot be reached, he would be talking to Premier Dalton McGuinty over the weekend to discuss "all options," including provincial back-to-work legislation.

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