By: Dylan Webb, Sports Editor
On October 31, contract negotiations between the Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC) and Unifor, the union representing approximately 5,000 bus drivers and maintenance workers, broke off. The resulting job action began with a uniform ban and a commitment from maintenance workers to refuse overtime work. Seabus service has been disrupted, and 41 bus runs have been cancelled as of November 7. Further intensification of job action is a distinct possibility, as the two parties in the conflict appear to be far from an agreement, with no new talks scheduled at the time of writing.
While the inconvenience posed to the public is an easy starting point for media coverage, it’s important to pay attention to the issues workers are bringing forward. We must understand what’s at stake in a conflict like this and, more importantly, why workers are willing to risk negative public perception to go on strike.
Transit workers have brought forward concerns over wages that have not kept pace with the cost of living, as well as secure benefit packages. Inadequate recovery times between routes have been flagged as an additional key grievance. Gavin McGarrigle, western regional director for Unifor, explained that bus drivers are often given mere minutes to recover, use the washroom, and reset for their next route. He stresses that “workers are not machines, they are humans” and that “they are at a breaking point.”
We shouldn’t buy into easy narratives of greedy employees asking for too much. This rhetoric only benefits the companies that are exploiting their workers. Given that transit operators make a wage that tops out at $32 an hour for the most senior employees, the argument that transit workers are greedy should have little relevance in this conflict. There’s more at stake than simply wages, although let’s be honest: a bus driver’s wage isn’t giving any of them a life of luxury.
Of course, given the significant importance of public transit to a large segment of the population, it’s not surprising that public sentiment regarding the strike has been partially negative, as evidenced by much of the comment section on a Global News article covering the story. While citizens are rightfully concerned about compromised commutes, focusing our anger on the drivers and maintenance workers who are fighting for a fair and dignified working environment is misguided.
Striking is one of the only ways workers can exercise power and defend their rights and standard of living when employers ignore their grievances. I know from personal experience, having had multiple family members go on strike during their working careers, that workers and their unions don’t take the decision to strike lightly. Going on strike involves a lot of unpleasantness for workers, including but not limited to: lack of wages, potential backlash from the public, and, in many cases, long hours outside on the picket line, exposed to the elements. Striking is not something that is done without careful consideration for the costs to the public, and the risk and discomfort workers inevitably face.
Fight the urge to get angry at striking transit workers. Direct that anger instead toward a company that is refusing to consider demands for decent pay and benefits and a reasonable amount of recovery time between shifts. Remember, this is not the bus drivers’ fault!