Metro Vancouver’s public transit system is entering a period of uncertainty, as the labour union representing over 5,000 bus and SeaBus workers has called a strike vote.
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Unifor announced Thursday that its negotiations with Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC), the TranLink subsidiary that operates and maintains the region’s bus and SeaBus ferry services, broke off after months of discussions. Its members are scheduled to hold a strike vote in Surrey on Thursday, October 10.
SkyTrain and West Coast Express workers are unaffected.
According to the union, its members have been working without a contract since March 31, claiming CMBC has not satisfied their key issues on wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Gavin McGarrigle, the western regional director of Unifor, asserts TransLink’s recent accolade of North America’s best public transit system was the result of the efforts of frontline staff who now deserve greater compensation and benefits.
“TransLink won this award in part because of the on-time service of our members, but what the company isn’t recognizing is that level of service was achieved due to lack of proper breaks and recovery time between trips,” said McGarrigle in a statement.
“Coast Mountain is also failing to address a serious understaffing issue, with overcrowded bus trips increasing 36% between 2016 and 2018.”
TransLink officials stated earlier this year that they have been struggling to keep up with ridership demand, despite the introduction of new services and significant additional service hours.
Buoyed by a strong economy, changing commuter patterns, densification, soaring fuel costs, and service improvements, the region’s transit ridership increased by 18% in the period between 2016 and 2018.
To meet ridership growth and achieve the Mayors’ Council’s Phase One transit expansion plan, TransLink has been on a hiring spree for four consecutive years. With bus operators alone, it hired 365 drivers in 2016 and 470 drivers in 2017, and has a goal of hiring over 500 drivers from 2018 to 2019, making this the largest bus driver recruitment initiative since the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
As with other sectors of the economy, the labour pool is in short supply due to positive economic conditions and the severe constraints with housing affordability.
TransLink is slated to receive over 500 new and additional buses throughout 2019. This includes 238 new buses to replace ageing fleets and 105 new buses for service expansion, as well as 88 new buses from a batch that began arriving in 2018.
The public transit authority’s first double-decker buses on suburban long-haul routes are slated to roll out later this month.
One of the largest bus service expansions in years is slated for early 2020, when three new RapidBus services on 41st Avenue in Vancouver, Marine Drive in the North Shore, and Lougheed Highway in the northeast sector are launched.
And starting early last month, SeaBus saw a major service increase with the operation of 10-minute frequencies during peak hours — up from every 15 minutes previously.
“We are negotiating now to ensure that our members can properly deliver quality service to the region’s growing population,” said Balbir Mann, president of Unifor Local 111.
As of February 2019, TransLink’s conventional bus drivers have a starting salary of $22.83 per hour during their 30-day training period, increasing to $24.46 per hour for the first eight-month period, $26.09 per hour for the second eight-month period, $29.35 per hour for the third eight-month period, and $32.61 per hour after 24 months.
Benefits include comprehensive medical, dental, and vision benefits, as well as paid vacation, a pension plan, and a bus pass for both the worker and one family member.
If the union’s members decide to strike, labour action will not necessarily happen immediately nor will it be imminent.
CMBC workers under Unifor also voted to strike in 2016, but labour action was quickly avoided after both parties came to an agreement.
In 2015, 150 workers on SkyTrain Canada Line, represented by BC Government and Services’ Employees Union, voted in favour of a strike. But after five days of post-vote mediation, an agreement was reached, averting any labour action. Under a 35-year contract with TransLink, the Canada Line is separately operated and maintained by ProTranBC, a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin.
Metro Vancouver’s bus and SeaBus workers last went on strike in 2001, with labour action crippling the public transit system for four consecutive months. The strike only ended when the provincial government enacted legislation that forced over 3,000 workers to return to work.
At the time of the 2001 strike, the region was far less dependent on public transit; even the Millennium Line was still under construction, and the region’s first U-Pass program for UBC and SFU had yet to be implemented. After labour action ended, TransLink apologized and showed customer appreciation by offering three consecutive days of free rides upon the return of regular service.