With Metro Vancouver hurtling towards a three-day, system-wide bus system shutdown, both sides of the contract dispute are digging in.
Unifor locals 111 and 2200, which represent 5,000 bus, SeaBus and maintenance workers, say if their wage and working condition demands aren’t met, they will walk off the job next Wednesday, paralyzing the transit system.
“Why not take part in mediation? Why not bring in a third party who can help the parties resolve some of these issues, see different perspectives?” TransLink spokesperson Ben Murphy asked Thursday.
“They’ve refused, they won’t do it.”
TransLink’s call is being echoed by the opposition BC Liberals, who have demanded the province step in and insist on mediation.
“The premier has the power to help end this strike by appointing a mediator to get both parties back to the table,” Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Now that a system-wide shutdown is planned for next week, why won’t John Horgan finally do something?”
The governing NDP have to this point resisted intervening in the situation, saying they remain committed to the bargaining process.
“I’m encouraging the parties to get back to the table, they’ve got the whole weekend to hammer out a deal,” said Premier John Horgan Thursday afternoon.
“I appreciate the concerns people would have that use transit. We’ve seen a 20 per cent increase in ridership in the Lower Mainland. that speaks to the importance of this sector. But having said that, the best way forward, the best way to get an agreement is at the bargaining table, and I’m encouraging the parties to be there all weekend long.”
The union has expressed little interest in mediation.
“Our members are prepared to last as long as it takes,” Unifor western director Gavin McGarrigle said on Wednesday.
An associate professor and labour expert with UBC’s Sauder School of Business, Tom Knight, said the two sides appear to be too far apart for mediation to be a practical solution at this point.
“If the one or the other party is unwilling to go to the table, then there’s not a lot of utility in going to mediation,” he said.
According to TransLink, the union and the Coast Mountain Bus Company remain about $150 million apart on wage demands.
The union is demanding that operator wages be calculated in reference to Toronto’s transit system, and mechanics in reference to the SkyTrain system, along with improvements to working conditions.
TransLink says it’s offered $6,000 pay bumps to operators and $10,000 to mechanics, increases in excess of other public sector settlements, but just under $3/hour less than Toronto Transit Commission operators are paid.
The employer has also guaranteed operators 40 minutes of recovery time.
Knight said his sense is that there is a lot of pent up anger among drivers, built on increasing ridership and pressure on the system, “which isn’t something that people can be mediated out of. ”
“The union has gotten so specific and, I think, potentially over-committed to Toronto as what the comparison should be … that apparently puts the parties quite far apart,” he said.
“And because it’s such a committed position, it very hard.”
Knight said a system shut down would increase pressure on the government, which may come in the form of ordering the two sides back to the table for mediation.
“But they’re pretty committed to their positions,” he said. “Ultimately, there may need to be some form of arbitration.”
That may be cold comfort for Metro Vancouverites trying to arrange transportation next week without buses.
Car-share company Evo says signups are about 20 per cent up from this time last year, and that it expects interest to go up as job action escalates.
The company is urging members to carpool with its vehicles, and to book in advance if possible, and says it will be working to relocate cars along the SkyTrain system and busy transit corridors.
Post-secondary institutions such as UBC and SFU are urging students to carpool to campus.
Students are also actively discussing pitching tents on campus, while others are inviting people to sleep overnight in the common areas of residencies.