Metro Vancouver transit strike: Should buses be an essential service?

Workers, students and others stranded by bus strike say government should take action to ensure it won’t happen again.

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Buses were expected to be back on the road Wednesday morning after a 48-hour strike that spurred debate over how to avoid such commuter chaos in the future, including whether transit should be deemed an essential service.

The labour dispute, which started Monday at 3 a.m. and was expected to end Wednesday at 3 a.m., snarled travelling plans for thousands of people, including post-secondary students, retail and service workers, and care aides who were unable to help their elderly clients.

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“There’s thousands of seniors across the Lower Mainland that rely on caregivers to help them … get washed, dressed and prepare meals, and take their medications,” said Margot Ware, president of North Vancouver-based Shylo Home Healthcare, which provides care aides in seniors’ homes or facilities.

“I really wish the public understood how these disruptions to public transit affect seniors who rely on caregivers for their daily care.”

Margot Ware, a nurse and president of Shylo Home Healthcare in North Vancouver. sun

The impact of the strike has prompted B.C. United opposition Leader Kevin Falcon and others to question whether transit should be an essential service, which would require some employees to work during labour talks.

“This (strike) dramatically impacts seniors, students, the people trying to get to work and those trying to get to their doctor appointments,” Falcon said Tuesday.

Deeming transit essential would avoid months-long strikes, which just occurred in the Fraser Valley and Sea to Sky corridor, and would match the designation already given to B.C. Ferries, he added.

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Anita Huberman, president of the Surrey Board of Trade, said this week has been difficult for businesses and may signal the need for the provincial government to consider declaring transit essential.

“They have a role to play to ensure the economy continues, and that we’re able to move people,” Huberman said. “If workers can’t get to their place of employment, it affects the bottom line of our business community, and (we’re) already in a very challenging economic time.”

Surrey business owners had to be “creative” in helping their employees get to work, such as organizing carpooling or paying for portions of taxi fares, she added.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains, though, on Monday dismissed outright Falcon’s call for TransLink workers to be deemed essential. He said either side can go to the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to make arguments about transit being declared essential, but that hasn’t happened.

When Bains made these comments Monday, on Day 1 of the labour dispute, he instead urged both sides to return to the bargaining table to quickly hammer out a deal.

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At press time there was no word on negotiations between CUPE 4500, which represents the 180 striking transit supervisors, and TransLink’s Coast Mountain Bus Company, which runs all the buses and SeaBuses that carried 300,000 people daily until they were grounded.

The union has said it tried to avoid taking job action, but the company was unwilling to address a discrepancy in wages. Coast Mountain says it offered more overtime pay, better benefits and hiring more supervisors, but can’t afford to pay higher wages given declining ridership and revenue since COVID-19.

SkyTrain, West Coast Express and some small bus services, such as West Vancouver Blue Bus, are still running. CUPE 4500 made an application to the LRB to expand pickets to SkyTrain stations, but it appears a hearing for this hasn’t been scheduled.

Postmedia News requested to speak with TransLink chair Lorraine Cunningham about what role the board plays in these talks. But a spokeswoman said the board’s mandate doesn’t include negotiating or ratifying collective agreements.

Since Metro Vancouver’s last major transit strike in 2001, the percentage of people who work outside their home and rely on public transportation to get to their jobs grew from 11 per cent two decades ago to 15 per cent in 2021, said Andy Yan, Simon Fraser University urban studies associate professor, who made the comparison by analyzing census data.

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His statistics also show reliance on transit goes up as workers’ salaries go down.

“This (labour dispute) affects low-income workers the hardest,” said Yan, director of SFU’s City Program. “This transit strike is hitting workers differently.”

Ware and her supervisors helped most of Shylo’s 100 care aides get to work this week by driving them to their elderly clients who were “stressed and nervous” by the uncertainty caused by the strike.

It was a short-term solution that the 44-year-old company managed for two days, but she hopes the government will take action to avoid such strikes from happening again.

In addition to home-health workers struggling to reach clients, some assisted-living and long-term care homes had to take innovative steps to get care aides into work: some relied on their private buses, typically used to shuttle seniors to events, to pick up staff, said Terry Lake, CEO of the B.C. Care Providers Association.

Lake said it may be time to consider whether transit should be declared essential, although he noted that has to be balanced with the rights of workers.

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“But I think when you see the impact on vulnerable seniors,” he added, “it certainly should be a conversation that needs to be had.”

The B.C. Nurses’ Union said it hoped for a speedy resolution to the conflict to help patients who ride the bus to access care and nurses who use transit to get to work, but it also supports the right of the transit supervisors to take job action during collective bargaining.

The strike also disrupted production at food and beverage facilities, said James Donaldson, CEO of B.C. Food and Beverage.

“The 40,000 employees in our industry rely heavily on public transportation to get to and from work on a daily basis,” he said.

— With files from Joe Ruttle, Postmedia News and The Canadian Press

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