The union representing Metro Vancouver transit workers and Coast Mountain Bus Company, the transit operator, are heading back to the table in a last-minute attempt to negotiate a settlement on Tuesday, as 350,000 transit users brace for a three-day bus and SeaBus strike starting Wednesday.
Unifor western regional director Gavin McGarrigle said the union resumed negotiations Tuesday afternoon without a mediator “out of respect for the passengers [they] serve, the workers that need to get to work and … the students that need to get to school.”
The union voted 99 per cent in favour of strike action last month, and job action began Nov. 1 with an overtime ban by mechanics, which later expanded to bus drivers. Past negotiations between Unifor and Coast Mountain fell through earlier this month.
Issues include wages, benefits and working conditions.
“Wages are our key issue,” said Unifor national president Jerry Dias. “But there are some curious working condition issues, as well.”
Mr. Dias points to the lack of mandatory rest breaks as the most pressing one.
“With no bathroom breaks, what do you do? Do you stop the bus in the middle of the street? If I have to go to the bathroom, I go to the bathroom. It's a little more difficult when you're driving a bus and you've got 50 people on board.”
Ben Murphy, a spokesman for TransLink, the municipal government agency that runs the bus company, said last week that TransLink has guaranteed rest times, better working conditions and wages in a “historic offer.”
TransLink chief executive Kevin Desmond said during a press conference on Monday morning the wages offered are based on market conditions; he was responding to questions about TransLink executives receiving a salary increase as high as 25 per cent.
Negotiations were continuing until midnight Tuesday, with both Mr. Dias and Mr. Desmond present.
Mr. Dias said transit workers will return to work on Saturday upon “re-evaluation of where [they’re] at,” should the strike occur.
TransLink estimates up to 36,000 more cars could end up on the road over the next three days. But its data also show 100,000 people who use transit do not have a driver’s licence or car.
For riders such as Chelsea Sutcliffe, this obstacle increases her travel time sixfold each way.
Ms. Sutcliffe, who lives on the University of British Columbia campus and works in the Broadway-Granville area, usually has a 20-minute bus ride to and from work.
If the buses don’t run, her plan is to walk – a trip that would take her around two hours each way.
“I don’t drive at all,” Ms. Sutcliffe said. “Taxis are going to be really hard to come by and the price of taking one to and from work is about half a day’s pay for me.”
And she is also worried about safety. Working a retail job from 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. that she is unable to do remotely, she said walking at night is another stressor.
“I have to get pepper spray just to feel safe walking that late.”
She said she considered biking but bike rentals on campus are limited and cannot be taken off campus to a distance as far as her work.
Labour Minister Harry Bains wrote in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday: “Our government supports the collective bargaining process and I firmly believe that collective agreements are best when negotiated at the bargaining table. We are encouraged by the decision of the parties to return to the bargaining table today.”
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s office was unavailable for comment.
CUPE 7000, the union local, representing approximately 900 SkyTrain workers for the Expo Line and the Millennium Line, voted in favour of strike action last week but have yet to announce any specific job action. They are returning to the bargaining table with the BC Rapid Transit Company ahead of scheduled mediation.
Buses in West Vancouver, which are operated by the District of West Vancouver, will remain running as usual.
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