Ontario's Liberal government moved Tuesday to take away the right to strike from public transit workers in Toronto, angering union members with a bill to declare the city's transit system an essential service.

"A million and a half riders, that's a million and a half reasons why we need to act," said Labour Minister Charles Sousa.

"The city of Toronto and city council has requested that TTC be an essential service. We said we'd take it seriously, and we did. We said we would deal and consult with those affected, and we did. And we said we would act quickly given the time constraints, and we did."

The government and the city want the legislation passed to declare the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service before the first labour contracts expire at the commission at the end of March.

However, Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, said the bill should not be rushed through, and claimed it is all about union busting by Toronto's new Mayor Rob Ford.

"This legislation is about taking on the unions, and it's unfortunate that the mayor of this city is too much of a coward to be up front about the fact that that's what he's trying to do," said Kinnear.

"Obviously we're disappointed. We have been offering to sit down with the city and work out an agreement."

TTC chairwoman Karen Stintz said the commission, and Toronto city council, heard from people who believe their transit is an essential service.

"It is estimated that a TTC strike costs our economy $50 million a day. That's a significant cost to our economy," said Stintz.

"It is important to note that over the last seven years, every time the TTC went out on a work stoppage, they were legislated back to work by the province."

However, Kinnear said the legislation was all about protecting Liberal seats in vote-rich Toronto.

"Unfortunately we're in a political arena, and both the city and the province are playing politics," he said.

"They are doing what they feel is in their best interests politically, not what is in the best interests of the province and the people that they serve."

The Progressive Conservatives said the province was doing the right thing by meeting Ford's request for legislation.

"Rob Ford or any other mayor of any city deserves what is required, and what is being asked for, to manage the city well," said Opposition critic Peter Shurman.

"And since Mr. Ford has requested the essential service legislation, it seems appropriate to be considering it."

The New Democrats hinted they wouldn't agree to quick passage of the bill, and said people need to realize declaring the TTC an essential service could cost taxpayers more in the long run.

"One of the persistent observations is an essential service regime could be far more costly to the taxpayer because you're dealing with arbitrated settlements and you have no inclination or incentive to negotiate," said NDP critic Peter Kormos.

The Liberals are already under attack from labour groups for trying -- not very successfully -- to impose a two-year wage freeze on about one million public sector workers to help trim a budget shortfall of nearly $19 billion.

However, Premier Dalton McGuinty wasn't afraid to take on yet another powerful union in an election year with the TTC bill, believing there are more votes up for grabs from people who are inconvenienced by transit strikes than from transit workers.

"We have received a proposal from Toronto city council. We have listened to them, we have talked to representatives of the workers as well and of course we've heard from many Torontonians," said McGuinty.

"Whatever we do it's all about helping the people of Toronto, ensuring that their needs are being met."

The legislation would put the TTC workers in the same category as police and firefighters for labour contracts, with a built-in review of the essential service designation after five years.

Most TTC riders interviewed said they favour the essential service designation because transit stikes shut down the city. But some TTC users said all union members should have the right to strike.

-- With files from Alexandra Posadzki