Most people think of Metro Vancouver's transit system as a public service.
After all, TransLink's SkyTrain lines are the beneficiary of billions of dollars of public investments by senior levels of government.
Politicians on the public payroll routinely make announcements whenever there are major public expenditures about a new SeaBus.
The TransLink Mayors' Council appoints a majority of directors to the TransLink board.
TransLink collects property taxes and gas taxes to fund its operations.
Coast Mountain Bus Company, which operates the regional bus and SeaBus service, is a wholly owned subsidiary of TransLink.
It sure sounds like a public-sector operation.
But for the purposes of contract talks, TransLink has conceded that Coast Mountain Bus Company does not fall under the 2019 sustainable services negotiating mandate.
According to the B.C. government website, this mandate "applies to all public sector employers with unionized employees whose collective agreements expire on or after December 31, 2018". (Italics added.)
Coast Mountain Bus Company's contract with Unifor Local 111 and Unifor Local 2200 expired on March 31.
Ergo, Coast Mountain Bus Company is not a public-sector employer.
Bus drivers will not wear uniforms
A full-time transit operator with at least two years' experience makes nearly $63,589.50 per year at a 37.5-hour week, not counting overtime.
Unless a deal is reached, these operators won't be wearing their uniforms today and Coast Mountain Bus Company maintenance staff won't be working overtime.
These are the first steps in what's likely to be escalating job action.
If Coast Mountain Bus Company were to fall under the sustainable services negotiating mandate—like provincial public employers—the union would be expected to negotiate a three-year contract with general wage increases of two percent each year.
That would inject some predictability into the bargaining process.
Then the two sides could work out contentious details like the lengths of breaks.
They could figure out how to alleviate stress on operators due to the sharply increasing numbers of transit riders. That probably wouldn't require a systemwide shutdown.
But because the public-sector bargaining mandate doesn't apply, the union is free to try to negotiate wage increases substantially higher than two percent per year and a term longer than three years.
The bus company's president and CEO, Mike McDaniel, said yesterday that management has offered a package that would be greater than most public-sector agreements in B.C.
The union is ready to strike for many months if its demands aren't met, according to chief negotiator Gavin McGarrigle.
What does this mean for transit riders?
Quite possibly, a strike might last longer than it would have had the public-sector bargaining mandate applied, simplifying negotiations.
If a strike drags on for months, it will result in more inconvenience and more costs for low-income people without vehicles, and more problems for employers across the region if some of their workers quit.
It's going to have a devastating impact on students, who might end up dropping out of postsecondary classes.
Who's responsible for that?
The provincial government could have explicitly included TransLink and its wholly owned subsidiaries in its definition of public-sector employers that fall under the mandate. It chose not to do that.
Moreover, the TransLink Mayors' Council could have passed a motion saying that to protect the transportation authority's finances, all of its wholly owned subsidiaries are public-sector employers under the provincial bargaining mandate.
That didn't occur, either.
Back in the late 1990s when TransLink was created, the board didn't need to create separate wholly owned subsidiary companies with their own CEOs. But it did this and now transit users may face the consequences of that decision.
For its part, Coast Mountain Bus Company isn't insisting that it's a public-sector employer.
This will also have a consequence on its negotiations with another union, MoveUP, which hasn't yet issued strike notice.
Unifor repeatedly refers to itself as Canada's largest private-sector union.
Presumably, it's including its 5,000 Coast Mountain Bus Company members in its calculations.
To put it bluntly, the publicly funded Metro Vancouver bus company is not part of the province's public sector, no matter how many tax dollars are thrown at it every year.