Strike vote ups pressure in Metro Vancouver transit negotiations

98 per cent vote gives unions strike mandate against TransLink but more bargaining is expected

Getting around could get more complicated for Metro Vancouver bus riders if a strike vote by drivers and support staff leads to a full walkout.

Metro Vancouver bus drivers, SeaBus workers and support staff have voted to support strike action to bolster their union’s demands for a new contract.

There is no imminent threat of transit service disruption by the 4,700 unionized workers represented by two Unifor locals following the widely expected 98 per cent vote Thursday.

More rounds of negotiations are scheduled May 9th and 24th with TransLink’s Coast Mountain Bus Co. arm.

And union leaders wouldn’t issue 72-hour strike notice before late May at the earliest, depending on the outcome of talks.

Negotiations had started Feb. 17 but broke off April 6 with the unions accusing TransLink of seeking unreasonable concessions.

Working conditions are a key issue, according to Unifor leaders, who are also demanding undisclosed wage and benefit increases.

Transit operating funding has been largely frozen for several years due to the funding impasse between the province and Metro mayors.

Mayors refused to raise TransLink property taxes, the province first rejected other new funding sources, then insisted they go to a referendum, which failed last year.

TransLink, in turn, has extracted savings where it could to deliver more service. Much of that has come through bus service “optimization” which has often left bus drivers with less time for bathroom and meal breaks during shifts and less buffer time to complete routes on schedule amid worsening traffic.

“The system was already bursting at the seams before the plebiscite,” said Unifor B.C. director Gavin McGarrigle. “Nobody can say the congestion hasn’t gotten worse. There hasn’t been any net increase in service and we’e looking at 1,100 pass-ups per day.”

He said bus drivers are under tighter time constraints running buses increasingly jammed with frustrated passengers, if they can get on board at all.

TransLink has not offered a pay increase in line with what the provincial government gave all other public sector workers, he said, adding Unifor members won’t accept less.

TransLink issued a statement saying it expects no disruption at this time and remains committed to reaching an acceptable negotiated settlement.

The previous contract had been due to expire in the middle of last year’s plebiscite campaign, but TransLink agreed to a one-year extension that provided a 1.75 per cent pay hike effective last April.

SkyTrain staff are not part of the same bargaining unit, but Unifor local 111 president Nathan Woods did not rule out attempting to picket the rapid transit system as a brief tactic during a strike.

Even a walkout limited to bus and SeaBus workers would greatly inconvenience many residents, worsen traffic as more drivers take to the roads, and leave TransLink struggling to regain ridership when it’s over.

The last transit strike in Metro Vancouver was in 2001 and disrupted service more than four months.

A strike could, in theory, be ended by the province through an essential services designation and back-to-work legislation if repeated efforts, through mediation, failed to reach an agreement.

Picketing workers would get $250 a week in strike pay after the eighth day.