Why a lengthy transit strike would be political poison for John Horgan's NDP government

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      John Horgan is lucky to be premier of British Columbia—his party lost the popular vote and took two fewer seats than the B.C. Liberals in the 2017 election.

      The NDP largely won with the support of middle-income and low-income voters in Metro Vancouver, taking several seats previously held by Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark's MLAs.

      Many of those voters rely on the transit system to get to work and school.

      But now, the union representing transit operators and transit maintenance staff is threatening to shut down bus and SeaBus service.

      “We’re not looking at ramping up over the weekend but we are prepared to last six months, nine months, a year,” Unifor chief negotiator Gavin McGarrigle said this week. “Eventually it will end in a full system shutdown.”

      He and his members are eager to flex their muscles, despite being offered between 2.5 percent and 3 percent per year over four years and an enhanced benefit package.

      According to Coast Mountain Bus Company president and CEO Mike McDaniel, the union wants more than $600 million more than what's already on the table. And that would delay major improvements to the transit system.

      Moreover, McDaniel is claiming that the union has refused to engage in third-party mediation.

      Labour Minister Harry Bains hasn't ordered the two parties to engage in mediation, even though he has the power to do so under the B.C. Labour Code.

      Unifor chief negotiator Gavin McGarrigle has mused about shutting down bus service for months or possibly even a year.

      TransLink gets its message out

      The last time there was a lengthy bus strike, in 2001, many people blamed TransLink management.

      The union leader at the time, Buzz Hargrove, shrewdly made the case that TransLink wasn't prepared to give the hard-working staff a reasonable deal.

      This time, TransLink has countered those arguments in advance by publicizing what it's offering.

      To many people, these offers will seem reasonable, given that a full-time bus driver with two years' experience already makes $$63,589.50 annually with a 37.5-hour week before overtime.

      While that may not match a bus driver's pay in Toronto, it's still far above what many of the passengers collect in a year.

      A full-time transit maintenance staffer who's completed a four-year apprenticeship receives $78,175 annually on a 37.5-hour week before any overtime.

      For the sake of comparison, a Vancouver police constable with two years experience receives $80,176 per year.

      Nobody's disputing that driving a bus is a tough and sometimes dangerous job.

      And it's true that governments of all stripes have invested a disproportionate amount of money into driverless rapid-transit systems in comparison to the bus network, which remains the backbone of the system.

      But if TransLink's bus company is offering larger increases than what's going to other public-sector workers, many people will wonder if this justifies a lengthy shutdown to bus and SeaBus service.

      One NDP politician whose career could be jeopardized by a bus strike is parliamentary secretary for transit Bowin Ma (seen with Coast Mountain Bus Company CEO Mike McDaniel).

      NDP represents areas with high bus ridership

      Sooner or later, the public is going to blame politicians—particularly the NDP government, which will have the power to end it. Members of the TransLink Mayors' Council will also come under fire, particularly its chair, New Westminster mayor Jonathan Cote.

      It's worth noting that bus ridership is particularly high in Vancouver where the NDP holds eight of the 11 seats.

      Just take a look at the 99-B line rumbling along Broadway every day. It's jammed.

      Ridership is also high in Burnaby—students rely on the bus to reach SFU's Burnaby Mountain and buses feed the city's 11 rapid-transit stations.

      The NDP holds all four seats in Burnaby. Back in 2005, the party only held one.

      New Westminster, which is also represented by the NDP, has five rapid-transit stations served by buses.

      In the City of North Vancouver, hordes of people use the bus to go to downtown Vancouver or to reach the SeaBus station.

      For the first time in a generation, the NDP won North Vancouver–Lonsdale in the 2017 election.

      The NDP has five seats in Surrey, one in North Delta, one in Coquitlam, and two in the Pitt Meadows–Maple Ridge area. All of these areas are also served by TransLink, with buses whizzing people to transit stations.

      Constituencies with the highest number of bus and SeaBus riders have NDP MLAs. A lengthy transit strike would be political poison for Horgan's government.

      A transit strike would offer B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson a chance to look like he's standing up for bus riders.

      Transit strikes kill political careers

      The 2001 bus strike finished off the 37-year political career of then TransLink chair and long-time Vancouver councillor George Puil in November 2002.

      This occurred even though the election came more than a year after the dispute ended.

      If Horgan and Bains decide to sit on the sidelines this time around, several local NDP MLAs could easily suffer a similar fate as Puil experienced in 2002.

      B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson's greatest political weakness is that he's not seen as being on the side of the little guy.

      He's often portrayed as an arrogant elitist—a Rhodes scholar, a doctor, a lawyer, and a homeowner on the posh West Side of Vancouver.

      A transit strike would offer Wilkinson a tremendous opportunity to rebrand himself as a friend of bus riders if the NDP government allows it to fester for any length of time.

      This is the greatest gift that Horgan could provide to his opponent.

      For its part, Unifor is playing a dangerous political game for everyone else in the labour movement by refusing mediation and turning up its nose at a reasonable wage offer.

      That's because if the B.C. Liberals were to be elected over this issue, they would roll back protections for workers, change the tax system to benefit the rich, and appoint less union-friendly members to important positions.

      Compounding the NDP's difficulties is TransLink. It appears to be managing the situation far more effectively than it did in 2001. To date, TransLink has come across as being remarkably transparent.

      This will inevitably result in more public blame being shifted toward the union-loving NDP rather than at the regional transportation authority.

      That too will ultimately play into the hands of the B.C. Liberals.