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Analysis: Horgan government faces a political tightrope if bus strike worsens

Click to play video: 'More SeaBus sailings cancelled due to transit strike' More SeaBus sailings cancelled due to transit strike
There were no bus cancellations on Wednesday, but a number of SeaBus sailings were cancelled as the Metro Vancouver transit strike continued. Grace Ke reports – Nov 6, 2019

Premier John Horgan was asked this week whether his government will intervene in the Metro Vancouver transit labour dispute and, predictably, he said no.

It was a valid question, but the timing was off.

As SeaBus cancellations and delays mount on a daily basis, many commuters have no doubt been somewhat inconvenienced by the job action taken by the transit union Unifor.

READ MORE: Metro Vancouver bus, SeaBus job action has begun. Here’s what you need to know

However, the current uniform and overtime ban remains too minor to warrant the government stepping in and flexing its elbows in the dispute.

However, if job action expands to the point where general bus transit services are halted – which would maximize the impact on the general public – that will be the time to pose the same question to the premier.

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Click to play video: 'Day 6 of the transit strike' Day 6 of the transit strike
Day 6 of the transit strike – Nov 6, 2019

If the bus system shuts down – as it did during the 123-day strike in 2001 – the political tightrope the NDP government will be walking will narrow considerably.

Public sector labour disputes are particularly vexing for an NDP government, partly because of the party’s strong ties to organized labor and partly because of its ideological support for strikes and the collective bargaining process.

READ MORE: Metro Vancouver transit strike: Here’s how your commute may be affected

It is easy for the party to stick to those positions when it is in opposition. When it is in government, not so much.

Nevertheless, a full-scale walkout by bus drivers would pose a tremendous challenge to the Horgan government.

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Public fury at the loss of most of the transit system – particularly in the suburbs, home to the ridings that put the NDP into power in the 2017 election – would rapidly mount, along with pressure for government action.

Click to play video: 'Transit strike impact set to ramp up' Transit strike impact set to ramp up
Transit strike impact set to ramp up – Nov 4, 2019

Would the NDP government impose a new contract on the transit union, as the former BC Liberal government did in 2001? This is where things can get a little tricky.

For example, would an imposed contract be similar in terms to the one currently on the negotiating table? The offer from the bus company would give maintenance staff a 12.2-per cent wage increase over four years.

Compare that to the six per cent wage increase (over three years) that other public sector unions have been offered (and which many have accepted).

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The provincial government negotiating mandate, in this case, doesn’t cover the transit union.

READ MORE: Metro Vancouver transit strike: More SeaBus cancellations Wednesday, potential bus service disruptions

But that distinction may be lost on many people, including public sector unions, because transit is rightly viewed as a public service.

Meanwhile, the BC Teachers’ Federation is watching this whole thing unfold with particular interest. It has yet to sign a new contract, and is demanding a wage increase considerably higher than the six per cent it is currently being offered.

Click to play video: 'Commuters prepare back-up plans for looming transit strike' Commuters prepare back-up plans for looming transit strike
Commuters prepare back-up plans for looming transit strike – Oct 29, 2019

The prospect of an NDP government imposing a contract on a private union doing public sector work – a contract considerably richer than any received by any public service union – would seem problematic, to say the least.

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All of this raises some interesting questions for the premier and his cabinet in the days and weeks ahead.

We are not at the government intervention point yet, but given the large gap between the two sides it seems likely it will eventually come into view.

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