Unions likely won't help Unifor if there's a transit strike in Metro Vancouver

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      Should the entire bus and SeaBus system be shut down so that transit operators can get longer bathroom breaks?

      That’s what some transit riders might be wondering after Unifor locals 111 and 2200 issued a 72-hour strike notice to TransLink’s wholly owned operating company, Coast Mountain Bus Company.

      The operators in Local 111 and the maintenance and SeaBus workers in Local 2200 are seeking better working conditions, wages, and benefits. They will be in a legal strike position at midnight Thursday (October 31).

      This is no ordinary labour dispute, in part because the union is outside the house of labour.

      Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, split from the Canadian Labour Congress last year, claiming that U.S.–based locals were interfering in its elections.

      It’s also no longer connected to the B.C. Federation of Labour or the New Westminster and District of Vancouver labour councils.

      That means transit operators and SeaBus and maintenance staff can’t expect much support from other unions, apart from having their picket lines honoured.

      Geoff Meggs, chief of staff to B.C.'s premier, knows that Unifor is outside of the house of labour after it withdrew from the Canadian Labour Congress.

      Union solidarity is not always forever

      Unifor’s national president, Jerry Dias, is seen by some as the architect of Ken Georgetti’s loss in the 2014 Canadian Labour Congress presidential election long before Unifor pulled out.

      Georgetti, a former B.C. Federation of Labour president and long-time Burnaby resident, has a lot of friends in the B.C. labour movement.

      Not only that, Dias also contributed $300 to former Conservative cabinet minister Kellie Leitch’s unsuccessful bid in 2016 to replace Stephen Harper as Conservative leader.

      Dias claimed at the time that Leitch, who was the most xenophobic of the contestants, was a “personal friend”. It’s rather odd that Dias would support Leitch, considering that Unifor Local 111 has a significant number of members of South Asian ancestry.

      So you can see why there might be bad blood between Unifor and other B.C. unions.

      How this will play out on the ground is anyone’s guess. But Labour Minister Harry Bains and the premier’s union-friendly chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, likely won’t leap to attention should Dias call, seeking their assistance.

      "Solidarity Forever" was written by Ralph Chaplin.

      Unifor does not represent SkyTrain employees. So as soon as the workers try to shut down rapid-transit service, TransLink is likely to obtain a court order to maintain SkyTrain operations.

      That would be small consolation for those who couldn’t rely on bus or SeaBus service to get them to SkyTrain stations.

      Unifor’s relations with other unions isn’t the only unusual wrinkle in this dispute. Both Unifor locals also have new presidents. The chief negotiator is Unifor’s newly appointed western regional director, Gavin McGarrigle, who played a role in Saskatchewan Crown corporation employees going on a 17-day strike in October.

      Local 2200 president Mike Smith had experience on his union executive before moving into his position. Balbir Mann, who heads Local 111, had never been on the executive before being elected. And he’s heading a union local that could find itself in a very contentious strike in the full glare of the media.

      In the last local election, Mann narrowly defeated the local’s former first vice president, Harb Kular, who was backed by former president Steve Sutherland.

      As the transit system has expanded, Coast Mountain Bus Company has hired many new drivers. This, along with a bitterly fought recent election, elevates the possibility of a local divided between the newer operators, who have never gone on strike, and the older members, who recall the gruelling four-month walkout in 2001.

      SeaBus service will be interrupted if there's a transit strike in Metro Vancouver.

      Bargaining mandate limits wage increases

      Under the most recent contract, transit operators with two years’ experience are paid $32.61 per hour.

      Mechanics, machinists, electricians, bodypersons, fare-box-maintenance mechanics, electronic technicians, welders, tire people, and painters who have completed four-year apprenticeships receive $40.09 per hour.

      The labour minister, Bains, has said that he wants collective bargaining to unfold without interference. The New Democrats, who hold power in Victoria, have a tendency not to want to meddle in contract talks.

      The B.C. government’s “sustainable services negotiating mandate” calls for all public-sector employers to negotiate three-year contracts with general wage increases of two percent per year.

      There is also latitude to negotiate “conditional and modest funding that can be used to drive tangible service improvements for British Columbians”.

      According to TransLink, Coast Mountain Bus Company is not considered a public-sector employer, so the mandate doesn't apply to it.

      For the public, the biggest risk is if the union locals jack up the expectations of their members beyond what TransLink feels it can offer. Once workers go on strike, they often don’t want to return to work until they feel that their sacrifices have generated an authentic return.

      The upside for TransLink is that the longer the workers go off the job, the more money it will save, which can be put toward future contracts.

      That’s no consolation for the public, however, who might have to figure out how to get to work or school before the ride-sharing companies have had time to get vehicles on the roads.