February 22nd, 2024

Union and Translink trade barbs as Metro Vancouver bus strike hits 300,000 commuters

By Chuck Chiang and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press on January 22, 2024.

A SkyTrain is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Tourists Jorge Correa and Roger Leyton wanted to go to Vancouver Island on Monday, but with no bus to get them to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, they had to make other plans.

“We have to leave tonight so this is our last day here,” said Correa, who lives in Chicago, while Leyton was visiting Vancouver from Mexico. “We couldn’t go (to Vancouver Island) so we are upset about that.”

They were among the thousands of people affected by a 48-hour strike launched by more than 180 unionized transit supervisors after contract talks with the Coast Mountain Bus Company broke down over the weekend.

Both sides blamed each other for the talks breaking down, with regional transit authority TransLink’s CEO saying the union’s wage demands were unreasonable, while a union spokesman accused Coast Mountain of trying to bully them.

Bus routes operated by Coast Mountain for TransLink stopped running early Monday morning and all SeaBus sailings between Vancouver and North Vancouver were also cancelled.

The shutdown of Coast Mountain routes represents 96 per cent of the region’s bus services and comes despite weekend negotiations with veteran mediator Vince Ready.

TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn said in a statement he was “frustrated and disappointed” by the strike that affected 300,000 Coast Mountain customers and left thousands “stranded.”

He said TransLink was in a “fiscal crisis” and facing a $4.6-billion structural deficit over the next 10 years, while the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4500 was demanding wage increases for supervisors that were “significantly more” than those accepted by all other Coast Mountain unions.

“Now is not the time to be demanding wage increases that are far beyond everyone else,” he said, urging both sides to get back to the negotiating table.

CUPE 4500 said its members would picket transit centres in Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Burnaby and Port Coquitlam, as well as at the SeaBus terminal in North Vancouver.

The union has meanwhile filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board that Coast Mountain tried to reduce the strike’s impact on commuters, and if the complaint is upheld it may picket additional sites such as SkyTrain stations. Unions representing other transit workers have said they would not cross such picket lines, potentially spreading the shutdown.

In a written response, the board said no hearing was scheduled in the dispute as of 11 a.m., and Quinn told a news conference TransLink did not expect a hearing in the next two days.

He said the chance of the strike spreading to SkyTrain services was low.

“I think our position is that we absolutely had the right to inform our customers of the options that they have,” he says of CUPE’s complaint.

“We have the ability to inform our customers that SkyTrain is available, that other services are available in the event that buses are not available.”

The SkyTrain, West Coast Express, HandyDART and a handful of bus routes remained operational on Monday. TransLink said it expected bus and SeaBus services to resume Wednesday.

Luis Saltos, a student services co-ordinator at ILAC International College, said he took the SkyTrain to work Monday, but several students had reached out to him about whether the strike meant classes were cancelled.

“Some of them have to take buses to get to the SkyTrain and it’s going to add like an extra hour to commute,” he said.

Builder Dwight Vallentgoed was at Vancouver’s Waterfront Station, waiting for a SkyTrain to take him to work in Richmond. He normally catches the bus from his home in New Westminster before getting on the train.

He said he didn’t know the strike was on until Monday morning. “I thought everything was smooth sailing until this morning,” said Vallentgoed. “We didn’t really have the time (to prepare).”

He said he got lucky after his boss gave him a lift to the station.

“I could have taken sick time, but I’m not doing that,” laughed Vallentgoed, adding that he was a good worker.

Both Vancouver International Airport and BC Ferries warned passengers that transit to and from terminals could be delayed due to the strike action.

“We regret these disruptions and the challenges this will cause for the people we serve every day,” said CUPE 4500 spokesman Liam O’Neill in a statement.

“But Coast Mountain could have avoided this. Instead, they put us and, through their inflexibility, transit users in this situation.”

He told a news conference that the union “did everything we could” to avoid the strike, spending more than 20 hours in mediation.

“We offered compromise but Coast Mountain just kept trying to bully us into accepting their proposals,” O’Neill said.

He said that fixing the “unfair wages” of supervisors would cost less than 0.05 per cent of the Coast Mountain Bus budget for wages, salaries and benefits.

But Coast Mountain president Michael McDaniel said the union refused to adjust its demand for wage increases despite efforts to reach a compromise.

“CMBC offered increased overtime pay, improved benefits, and committed to hiring more supervisors,” McDaniel said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the union again refused the improved offer. This is unacceptable and unreasonable.”

McDaniel said last week that the union was seeking a 25-per-cent wage increase.

The union said wage gaps between its members and other TransLink supervisors needed to be closed before a settlement could be reached.

“With the help of our mediator, CUPE 4500 put in an honest effort to find some common ground with Coast Mountain,” O’Neill said. “But we are still not near where we need to be in addressing our key issues.”

– With files from Brieanna Charlebois

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2024.

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