By: Gabrielle McLaren, Editor-in-chief
UPDATE, 10/31/2019: The first phase of the Metro Vancouver transit strike is set to begin Friday, November 1 as a partial strike—with workers refusing to wear uniforms or work overtime.
Have you ever watched bikers, joggers, or hikers make their way up Burnaby Mountain and thought, “wow, I can’t believe people actually do that”?
Spoiler alert: that might be all of us as the potential of a TransLink strike looms over Vancouver, as the Coast Mountain Bus Company and Unifor butt heads.
The contract covering over 5000 TransLink workers expired on March 31 and workers were left without a contract for months as their union and employer negotiated. Negotiations to produce a contract broke off on October 9, and on October 10 workers voted 99% in favour of giving their union a strike mandate, which has set the city abuzz.
The last time Vancouver’s transit workers striked was in 2001, leading to a 123-day strike that broke provincial records. While a repeat just in time for midterms isn’t on any student’s wishlist, understanding the key issues at stake for TransLink workers is crucial to understanding just how important this possible strike is.
The union representing over 5000 transit operators, Seabus workers, and maintenance staff is Unifor (locals 111 and 2200, respectively). According to the union’s website, they are “Canada’s largest private sector union, with more than 315,000 members across the country, working in every major sector of the Canadian economy.” It emerged in 2013 through a merger of other unions. Other TransLink workers are represented by other unions — meaning that a strike wouldn’t impact all of TransLink. In 2001, for example, SkyTrains remained open.
The good news for the student peasantry is that if negotiations truly fail between TransLink and Unifor, workers have to give 72 hours’ notice before striking — giving everyone a hefty heads up. Labour negotiations are called collective bargaining.
The other important thing to remember is that a strike mandate only means that a strike could happen, not that it will happen. Think of a strike mandate as a permission slip given to a union by its members to openly discuss, plan for, and leverage a strike. In 2016, for example, 98% of workers voted in favour of a strike — but a new contract was negotiated and accepted before the strike actually took place.
Even in the event of a strike, a full walkout isn’t the only possible outcome or action that the union could take. Also worth noting is that there are different types of strikes — workers could opt for a partial walkout, a slowdown strike . . .
Furthermore, TransLink workers are aware of the potential impact this strike may have. Students and low-wage workers are cited as particularly impacted demographics by Balbir Mann, president of Unifor Local 111. As Local 2200 President Mike Smith said in one of Unifor’s official statement:“Our members know that the public relies on them and it is our sincere hope that Coast Mountain comes back with a serious offer to avoid strike action and inconvenience to transit riders, but we are determined to obtain a fair deal for the workers.”
And what are the issues that workers want to see?
One of them is safety: increased ridership places more stress on drivers and affects their working conditions. Workers are hoping to see more and longer break times. As the Western Regional Director of Unifor, Garvin McCarrigle, told Global News, drivers’ breaks are measured in minutes between routes. Aside from being exhausting and unpleasant, this leads to overworked workers which is a safety issue. As a side note, while we’re on the issue of safety, according to a Unifor statement from July, WorkSafe BC claims involving assaulted transit workers are routinely denied.
The union is also looking to secure wages competitive with those other Canadian transit operators, hire more drivers to support TransLink’s expanding infrastructure, and reduce overcrowding on buses.
While overcrowding and congestion may seem like petty annoyances to riders, for transit workers they create further work and safety concerns. Unions report that overcrowded buses increased by 36% between 2016 and 2018 alone. Back in May, Unifor encouraged its members to take part of the #CureCongestion campaign to address overcrowding — showing how long these issues have plagued workers for.
The fact that TransLink is in the midst of an expansion at the moment is exasperating the concerns of Unifor members, according to the union, and making these negotiations unique and particularly impactful.
Union representatives have reported that preliminary negotiations are going well. As the Western Regional Director of Unifor Gavin McGarrigle told CityNews, “We’re starting to make some progress, although it’s slow at this stage.” Given upcoming negotiations scheduled for October 24, 25, and 28; McGarrigle estimates that any strike announcement would come after October 28.
Personally, if there is a complete walkout that paralyses our public transit, I’ll be doing my best to keep in mind that while it’s an inconvenience to me, not having a contract, proper compensation, or safe working conditions is a bigger inconvenience for TransLink employees.