The union representing about 5,000 Metro Vancouver bus drivers, SeaBus workers and mechanics says if it goes on strike, it will do so in a way designed to avoid “chaos.”
Unifor western director Gavin McGarrigle said the union had learned from the bitter, four-month bus strike of 2001 that left the system paralyzed.
“At this stage, we’ve ruled out a complete shutdown, but we’re looking at other forms of job action. That could include rolling strikes, it could include an overtime ban, uniform ban, work to rule,” he said.
“We’re going to try and design it in such a way that it has the least impact on the public, and the maximum impact on the company.”
But heavy transit users and their advocates aren’t convinced.
Jeremy Hunka, spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, said the region’s homeless and low-income residents will bear the brunt of any strike action.
“They get scared, they get anxious, they’re on pins and needles,” said Hunka of concerns UGM’s homeless clients have raised.
“Without the bus that they rely on, they would have a hugely difficult time getting to a doctor’s appointment, a housing appointment, getting to work,” he added.
“Because of the affordability crisis, people on the edges of society or the margins have been pushed out farther from the city centre, so if the bus doesn’t run they have a really hard time.”
Unifor locals 111 and 2200 have been without a contract since the end of March.
They’re demanding better wages and benefits, but working conditions are the key sticking point in the dispute with the Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC).
McGarrigle said surging ridership on the transit system is leaving drivers behind schedule, and without time to rest.
“Our members have told us they just don’t have enough time to recover, to have a bite to eat, to go to the washroom, to simply just reset themselves as they go from one route to the next,” he said.
He added that it’s also increased the anger and, at times, the abuse drivers face from transit riders.
“There are people being passed by two, three, four full buses. People trying to get home or to school, they’re not in a good frame of mind when they see that happening,” he said.
“We’ve seen assaults on our members increase over the years as well.”
The Coast Mountain Bus Company says it remains committed to negotiating a fair deal.
In a statement, the company said it is aware of the conditions staff and passengers are facing, and that it had prioritized investments in bus service over the last three years.
“Over the last two years, CMBC has hired over 1,000 bus operators to better serve our current routes while expanding to new areas of the region,” said the company.
“By 2021, we estimate the need to hire 1,300 additional bus operators.”
If a strike were to occur, it would not affect the West Vancouver Blue Bus system, which is operated by a different company.
It would also not affect SkyTrain, Canada Line, HandyDART or contracted shuttle services in Langley or on Bowen Island.
The Metro Vancouver Transit Police said it would also increase staff to deal with any crowding at SkyTrain stations.
McGarrigle said union leaders would meet again Tuesday, and return to the bargaining table Wednesday morning.
If the two sides are unable to reach a deal by midnight Thursday, the union says it will begin strike action.