The union representing many of Metro Vancouver’s transit workers says it is hopeful its strike mandate vote won’t actually lead to a walkout — which would be “complete chaos” for commuters.
On Thursday night, the region’s bus drivers, SeaBus operators and maintenance workers voted 99 per cent in favour of strike action, which would happen within the next 90 days unless a deal is reached with Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC).
Talks between Unifor locals 111 and 2200 and their employer broke down last Thursday over a new contract, which is meant to replace the last one that expired at the end of March. Both sides are set to return to the bargaining table Tuesday.
Unifor western regional director Gavin McGarrigle said now that members have sent notice they’re prepared to walk if their demands aren’t met, the ball is in Coast Mountain’s court.
“We hope that the employer will take serious note of the almost unanimous mandate our members gave us, and we’ll evaluate what their approach is next week and make some decisions from there,” he said.
Workers are demanding better wages, benefits and working conditions. It’s the last of those that McGarrigle says need to be addressed immediately as passenger demand grows.
According to the union, the number of overcrowded buses has increased by 36 per cent between 2016 and 2018.
The increase has meant drivers are getting more slowed down by people trying to get on buses to avoid being passed by. That leaves little room for the drivers to catch their breath, among other things.
“There’s just not enough recovery time built in for them to take care of bodily functions, going to the bathroom, having a sandwich and a bite to eat,” McGarrigle said.
“The type of breaks that they get are not structured. They’re measured in terms of minutes. There’s not 45 minutes or an hour that they sit and they’re not on the road. It’s literally minutes, in some cases two, three and four minutes after driving a complete route.”
TransLink, which oversees CMBC, is aiming to hire 700 more drivers just to meet the planned expansion of transit in the region.
McGarrigle says those new hires would be entering into the same rest and recovery time structure that currently exists, which is why members are calling for widespread change.
But according to the union, CMBC isn’t treating the issue with the same urgency.
“The company said they didn’t have a mandate to come anywhere close to dealing with our issues, and quite frankly, their approach seemed to think that this was just another round of bargaining,” McGarrigle said.
“This is not just another round of bargaining. This is in the middle of an expansion. Our members are really upset.”
CMBC would not comment on the specifics of what’s being offered at the bargaining table or the larger issues being discussed. In a statement, the employer said it was taking the negotiations seriously.
“CMBC remains committed to reaching an acceptable negotiated settlement. Both parties will continue bargaining in the coming days,” a spokesperson said. “We don’t anticipate imminent disruption to service at this time.”
If the union decides to take job action, it must give 72 hours notice before walking off the job. But McGarrigle said that would do little to offset widespread problems for commuters who rely on transit.
He added the effects would be far worse than what was seen during the four-month transit strike in 2001, the last time workers walked off the job.
“The transit system is so much bigger now,” he said. “There are so many more people that live here. I think just the amount of people that voted yesterday is greater than the entire membership back in 2001.”
But McGarrigle said workers don’t want to disrupt anyone’s lives, and are hopeful the two sides can reach a deal that meets at least some of their demands — at least when it comes to bathroom breaks.
“These issues need to be dealt with,” he said. “They need to be dealt with now and they need to be dealt with in a comprehensive manner. We don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
—With files from Jordan Armstrong, Neetu Garcha and Simon Little