Ominous signs on horizon as bus and SeaBus workers hold strike vote in Metro Vancouver

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      No doubt, some transit riders will experience anxiety today knowing that bus drivers and SeaBus operators are holding a strike vote.

      Those who rely on the transit system should realize that this doesn't mean that there's necessarily going to be a walkout. But there are ominous clouds on the horizon.

      • Coast Mountain Bus Company is a subsidiary of TransLink, which is financially strapped, partly as a result of a plebiscite going down to defeat last year.

      • TransLink's management has been hollowed out by the firing of several senior executives. This has left less experience at head office in dealing with transit operators' previous contract demands.

      • The new TransLink CEO, Kevin Desmond, came from King County's transit system in Washington state and has no labour-relations history in Canada.

      • Transit operators are now under the umbrella of the super-union Unifor. It was created through a merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

      • The workers have been without a contract for over a year.

      The last time a new union came in (CAW) to represent the transit operators, there was a four-month strike. It flexed its muscles to get its members a better deal than the members probably could have gotten from their previous union.

      Here's something else to consider: strikes are more popular with workers in the late spring and summer. That's because it's far more pleasant walking the picket line in the sunshine than in the winter rain or snow.

      Secured dates set aside for negotiations

      But there are still several things that could or must occur before bus or SeaBus service will be shut down.

      The Labour Relations Code states that a strike cannot begin until 72 hours after a union has given written notice.

      Unifor Local 111, which represents 3,700 transit operators, says on its website that there are "secured dates" for future negotiations with the employer on May 9 and May 24. That's a good sign.

      Under the code, the minister responsible for labour, Shirley Bond, can direct the Labour Relations Board to make a determination of which services are "essential" to prevent "immediate and serious danger to the health, safety or welfare of British Columbians". That's a grey area and would likely involve submissions to the board from the union and employer, delaying any job action.

      In addition, the associate chair of the Labour Relations Board's mediation division can appoint a mediator. The minister can appoint a "special mediator" or industrial inquiry commissioners, who have many of the powers of a commissioner under the Inquiry  Act. There are also opportunities for arbitration under the Labour Relations Code.

      All of this means there's no chance that transit service will be shut down immediately after today's vote, which is likely to be approved.

      If there's a walkout, transit operators would receive $250 per week in strike pay. That's not going to cover their cost of living in the Lower Mainland. So they're going to prefer a reasonable settlement if it can be negotiated.

      Complicating matters is a union election. Local 111 will hold a special membership meeting on Monday (May 2) to hear a motion to suspend this until 30 days after the next collective agreement is ratified.

      Wages and working conditions are two key issues

      This morning on CBC Radio's Early Edition, Local 111 president Nathan Woods claimed that the employer has not even matched the public-sector bargaining mandate with its wage offer.

      If true, that's not an encouraging sign. A powerful union like Unifor won't want to agree to a wage offer that's significantly lower than what's already been awarded to the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union and the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

      In the meantime, Woods told host Rick Cluff that there are 1,100 pass-bys per day, which indicates that buses are often full. That makes for tougher working conditions, which the union wants addressed.

      At the root of the problem is politicians who've been obsessed with planning SkyTrain extensions and new light-rail projects, which gobble up precious resources. Vast amounts of money have gone into rapid transit, including the West Coast Express.

      As a result, not enough has been invested in bus service, which is the workhorse of the transit system.

      Add on to that a $194-million Compass system, an expensive transit police force, and the oft-delayed Evergreen Line. Because the Evergreen Line wasn't finished earlier, it's meant bus service is being stretched over routes for a longer time than should have been necessary, leaving less service elsewhere.

      If there is a strike, it will inconvenience transit users and businesses and lead to greater pressure to allow Uber into the Lower Mainland.

      But the way things are shaping up, it might not be quite as brutal for many postsecondary students, who will have finished their school year before picket lines could go up.