As Metro Vancouver transit negotiations resume, big issues divide Unifor from TransLink and the labour movement

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      Update: Coast Mountain Bus Company and Unifor reached a tentative agreement around 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday (November 27).

      (Warning: This article is longer than most pieces on media websites.)

      This afternoon, the union representing 5,900 workers at Coast Mountain Bus Company will return to the bargaining table in what it calls a “final” attempt to avert a three-day systemwide shutdown starting on Wednesday (November 27).

      Unifor’s chief negotiator and western regional director, Gavin McGarrigle, told reporters yesterday that the national president, Jerry Dias, will join the talks.

      “He is determined that we will reach a fair deal or that we will take strike action on Wednesday,” McGarrigle declared.

      Does the presence of the national president suggest there’s a chance for a settlement?

      Mark Thompson, a labour-relations expert and professor emeritus from the Sauder School of Business, told the Straight that this could be a positive development.

      “When the general president shows up, he’s there to smile for the cameras,” Thompson said by phone. “If there’s blood to be shed, it’s vice-presidential blood, not his blood.”

      However, Thompson also said that Dias might also want to be in town to make sure things don’t get out of hand if contract talks break down again.

      The union has planned a large rally outside the TransLink Mayors’ Council meeting on Thursday (November 28) in New Westminster.

      At a November 25 news conference at Waterfront Station, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond painted a dire picture of the impact of a full-scale shutdown at Coast Mountain Bus Company.

      He pointed out that 350,000 people rely on bus and SeaBus service every day.

      Of the 160,000 who take the bus to work every day, 60 percent do not have a driver’s licence or own a car. More than 100,000 students rely on buses to get to school.

      “Make no mistake: this work stoppage, especially if it comes to a full-on strike after this three-day planned action, will have an impact on the region’s economy,” Desmond said.

      It would also make life more challenging for low-income residents of the region with disabilities.

      Justina Loh, executive director of the Disability Alliance of B.C., told the Straight by phone that people are stocking up on food and trying to get appointments out of the way in advance of any job action. That’s because so many of those with disabilities rely on transit and don’t have access to a car because of the cost.

      “Caregivers also use public transportation to see their clients, to help them get out of bed, and, you know, feed them and dress them at times,” Loh said. “So, people are quite concerned and quite anxious.”

      TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond says he the company wants to strike the right balance to ensure transit service can continue expanding.

      Ex-bus driver offers his side of story

      Coquitlam councillor Brent Asmundson recently retired from Coast Mountain Bus Company after driving transit vehicles for 33 years. He has tremendous sympathy for his former colleagues.

      “Drivers do no not get any breaks,” Asmundson told the Straight in a recent phone interview. “They get no coffee breaks. They get no lunch breaks. They work on straight time.”

      They might get a chance to go to the bathroom or grab a bite to each at the end of the line. But he said because of the way bus routes are scheduled, they get nowhere near the National Safety Code requirement of a 15-minute break for every two hours of driving.

      “I don’t know why the company won’t come around to that, but we’ll see what happens in negotiation,” Asmundson said.

      Another problem is split shifts, in which seven-and-a-half hours of work can be spread over 12 hours.

      The Coquitlam councillor said that he can understand why this occurs on weekdays, but believes there’s no justification on evenings and weekends apart from TransLink wanting to save a couple of dollars here and there.

      “It makes for a long day for drivers,” Asmundson said.

      TransLink’s CEO, Desmond, claimed at the news conference that he’s “extremely sympathetic to our operators getting break time”.

      “Coast Mountain put a good proposal on the table, in good faith bargaining, by the way, with the union,” Desmond said. “We have to find a balance of affordability. How do we fairly compensate 5,900 people while still being able to address the needs of the region and use taxpayer dollars wisely?

      “You have to find that balance,” Desmond continued. “We cannot undermine or erode our ability to continue to expand the service.”

      Moments later, Desmond went further by claiming that Unifor’s wage demands “threaten to put that balance out of whack”.

      “Something will have to give,” he added. “If our operating cost rises too fast, too steeply, we might have to consider more taxes, more fees, more fare increases, or cutting back—or some combination in between. I hope we don’t have to do that because in the long term, that undermines our ability to grow the system. The demand for our services is insatiable. It’s absolutely insatiable.”

      Unifor chief negotiator Gavin McGarrigle says it's a lie that Coast Mountain Bus Company is a separate entity from TransLink.

      McGarrigle delivers tough talk

      Desmond’s decision to wade into the discussions about the union’s demands drew an angry response from Unifor’s McGarrigle less than two hours later.

      “We have done everything possible to avoid escalating to this level—and of course, we still hope that a fair collective agreement will be reached,” he said. “What we’ve seen is a fiction that Coast Mountain Bus Company is somehow separate from TransLink. We now know that that is a lie.

      “We have seen today TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond saying on the one hand, he’s not part of the bargaining. Then on the other hand, he’s briefed with all the details of the bargaining.”

      Then McGarrigle took a poke at TransLink’s executive salaries. Desmond collects more than $400,000 per year and the board allowed that to increase sharply earlier this year.

      “We’ve seen him try to justify today why these executives are so skilled and so important and in such short supply that they deserve 18 to 25 percent wage increases while the workers have to be content with falling behind,” the Unifor chief negotiator said.

      The comments were made in front of a room of Unifor picket captains and the bargaining committees for Local 111 and 2200.

      “You gave us all a 99.3 percent strike vote,” McGarrigle said.

      Yet he insisted that the union is doing everything it can to avoid a strike, even after it rejected a wage hike of 9.6 percent over four years for transit operators in Local 111 and 12.2 percent over four years for skilled tradespeople in Local 2200.

      Thompson, the retired UBC labour-relations expert, said he has no doubt that the members are now supporting McGarrigle.

      But Thompson isn’t sure this support will remain as strong if the workers are on strike for three days.

      The last lengthy bus strike in the region occurred in 2001, when workers were off the job for four months. They were legislated back to work after the B.C. Liberals were sworn into office after winning a landslide election victory.

      “My recollection was that the union members were delighted to be legislated back to work,” Thompson recalled. “They could hardly wait to get to that door.”

      He also said that the Canadian Auto Workers “lost that strike” and were glad when the B.C. Liberals under Gordon Campbell "let them off the hook".

      Thompson predicted that Unifor may not fare so well if there’s another long strike this year because Premier John Horgan has already said that he won’t allow it to fester for four months.

      In the meantime, Labour Minister Harry Bains has declined to appoint a mediator, despite being urged to do so by B.C. Liberal MLAs.

      "It always is stressful when so many people rely on public transit, when they see there's a disruption," Bains said in the legislature this week. "No one likes to see disruption in our public transportation system. More and more people rely on public transportation.

      "That's why I have been encouraging both parties to get back to the bargaining table, because that's where the deal will be made. That's where the problem, the issues will be solved."

      Labour Minister Harry Bains has not ordered mediation, despite demands to do so from B.C. Liberal MLAs

      Split with CLC complicates matters

      Here’s another issue dogging Unifor: it withdrew from the Canadian Labour Congress last year, so it's not a member of local and district labour councils or the B.C. Federation of Labour.

      The split with the CLC came after Unifor conducted a raid on a Unite Here local in Toronto representing hotel workers.

      That led to scathing public statements by other unions, including the United Steelworkers.

      “Unifor’s decision to pit union against union in an attempt to increase its membership is a central breach of the commitment that each CLC affiliate makes in solidarity with the rest of the labour movement,” the Steelworkers said. “A union cannot in good faith be a committed member of the labour movement if it ignores that movement’s central rules when it suits its purposes—and that is what Unifor is doing.”

      Unifor, on the other hand, claimed that it was trying to certify a local that had unfairly been placed under trusteeship by the international parent organization.

      Thompson said that this rift between Unifor and the labour movement could possibly lead the NDP provincial government to be less sympathetic than it might be with other unions inside the “house of labour”.

      “The pressure the labour movement might exert on the government is going to be less, I think,” Thompson said.

      Moreover, a transit strike would affect a huge number of people and the NDP is clinging to power in a minority government.

      “If you’re looking at the big picture as it were, squeezing an extra increase out of an employer—if it embarrasses the party—is not a good policy to follow,” Thompson said. “I mean, you want them around for a longer time. And I wonder if Unifor sees it that way.”

      SFU labour-studies lecturer John-Henry Harter, on the other hand, told the Straight that he expects workers from other unions will support transit workers if Unifor picket lines go up.

      He said this while acknowledging the rift between the leaders and Unifor’s weakness in not having the backing of other unions.

      “On a worker-to-worker basis, I think that we recognize that Unifor is an actual union,” Harter said. “It’s not like they’re an employers’ union or anything like that. So I think there will be support.”

      Unifor differs from many other unions in another key respect: its tentacles are spread throughout the economy rather than being confined to one or two industries. In B.C. alone, Unifor members work in hospitality and gaming, aerospace, food and beverage, fabricated metal, chemicals, plastics, electrical, retail and wholesale, health and social services, vehicle services, and media.

      The Straight asked TransLink’s Desmond if he thinks Unifor is using the bus system as a “pawn” to help its organizing efforts in other sectors.

      “Honestly, I can’t [say] nor would I speculate as to Unifor’s own strategic objectives,” Desmond replied. “That’s a question you need to direct to Unifor. I’m focused on trying to keep service upgraded.”

      McGarrigle did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.

      SFU’s Harter sees this as a dispute between the transit workers and the employer, rather than being about Unifor’s overall position within the house of labour.

      “The key is they want concessions,” Harter said. “They have demands from the Coast Mountain Bus Company and I do think that’s what it’s about.”

      Thompson also expressed doubts that Unifor’s actions in the transit dispute can be linked to a grand strategy to raid other unions, notwithstanding its willingness to engage in this activity.

      “They’re pretty much a bottom-up union, by and large,” the retired UBC professor said.

      As an aside, he told an amusing story about a transit dispute in 1984 in Toronto. Union leaders tried to discourage the members from going on strike during a papal visit because that would turn the public against them.

      The angry drivers responded by picking up glass ashtrays on the tables and throwing them at the union leaders on the stage.

      “These guys ducked for cover,” Thompson said.

      That led the union leaders to make all meetings non-smoking so there were never any ashtrays in the room in the future.

      “Bus drivers are tough guys,” Thompson said. “You don’t mess around with them.”