By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun
The Metro Vancouver bus drivers’s union says a full-fledged transit strike will be a last resort, saying it hopes the threat of a walkout will be enough to pressure Coast Mountain Bus Co. to move on their demands for better wages and working conditions.
The 4,700 drivers, skilled workers and SeaBus and support workers represented by Unifor locals 111 and 2200 voted 98 per cent in favour Thursday of a strike mandate — a tactic last used in contract talks in 2007 — to urge Coast Mountain, a subsidiary of TransLink, to drop some of its demands around wages, benefits and eliminating a Sunday time-and-a-half premium. Transit operators are paid $30.91 per hour.
The two sides, which broke off talks April 6, are slated to restart negotiations May 9.
“Normally we get it done at the bargaining table without having to (strike). We haven’t had a strike vote for 15 years,” said Gavin McGarrigle, B.C. area director for Unifor. “(But) the issues are serious and all we’ve heard from drivers is enough was enough.”
A full-scale strike, if it happens, would shut down all buses and SeaBus operations, but would not affect SkyTrain service. The last transit strike, in 2001, lasted more than four months, triggering massive protests from transit passengers and even desperate measures by one group, which dropped manure at the door of then-TransLink chairman George Puil.
The strike before that was in 1984, when drivers at TransLink‘s predecessor, BC Transit, went on strike for more than three months.
Drivers in both cases were eventually legislated back to work by the provincial government of the day.
The 2001 strike “paralyzed the city,” said Nathan Woods, president for Unifor 111, but a strike today would be significantly worse. There are more than 1.1 million trips on the transit system daily — double the number 15 years ago, TransLink said. In addition, road and bridge construction and a higher population, combined with a lack of transit expansion, has already increased traffic.
Pickets of striking transit workers bus drivers patrol the driveway into the transit lot at 42nd Avenue and Oak Street in Vancouver in 2001. Colin Price / Province
Instead of expanding services, TransLink has tried “service optimization,” shifting buses from poor-performing routes to busier ones, which the union says puts more pressure on drivers, who face tighter schedules and quick turnarounds on congested streets, giving them less time for food or washroom breaks.
Drivers are also experiencing overcrowded buses, and are passing by more than 1,000 passengers per day. As a result, they are facing abuse and assaults from frustrated passengers, McGarrigle said.
“Passengers are suffering and drivers are too,” he said. “They’re making do and are being more and more squeezed. It breaks their hearts when they see students or parents on the side of the road and they have to leave them there. That’s why a strike vote is a last resort.”
TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond declined to comment on the strike action, but said he has spoken with the union leaders and “we are committed to reaching a mutually acceptable deal. We want to keep that service on the road.”
Union officials say they hope to reach a contract that provides fairer wages and benefits for workers so they can focus on other matters, such as lobbying for more funding for transit projects. The mayors’ council’s 10-year plan had proposed adding 400 new buses to the system, which would help to ease the overcrowding, but that was stalled when residents rejected a 0.5 per cent sales tax increase to fund transit in a plebiscite last year. It would take at least two years to get more buses in the system.
Metro Vancouver mayors say they hope they can reach a deal with the B.C. government to push through a funding plan in the next few weeks. Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, who is vice-chair of the mayors’ council, said the mayors must come up with “other avenues” to fund TransLink’s share of proposed capital projects, which include more buses, a new SeaBus and rapid transit line expansions in Surrey and Vancouver.
The federal government has announced it will commit 50 per cent of funding to transportation projects, while the provincial government maintains it will only provide 33 per cent, leaving TransLink and Metro mayors to cover the last 17 per cent. Mayors have refused to raise property taxes to cover their share.
“The timeline is becoming crunch critical,” Hepner said. “We have to be in a solid position to be in line for that funding.”