The British Columbia government faces a “difficult balancing act” in dealing with labour strife among public-sector unions representing bus drivers in Metro Vancouver, teachers around the province, support staff on Vancouver Island and faculty members at a university in the north, a labour expert says.
Tom Knight, an associate professor specializing in industrial relations and human resources at the University of British Columbia, said Premier John Horgan’s government will have to avoid the actions of its Liberal predecessors, who used legislation to force transit operators back to work in 2001 after a four-month strike.
He said public-sector unions may have expectations of a labour-friendly NDP government, which would have to tread carefully by appealing to unions as well as voters who would be affected by long work stoppages involving transit or education, or both.
“It would be their hope to avoid what the Liberals did,” Knight said.
The former government also stripped teachers of contract provisions in 2002, leading to years of acrimony between the two sides and a provincewide strike that had students out of school for five weeks in 2014.
A lengthy legal battle ended in 2016 when the Supreme Court of Canada restored the previous contract language allowing the teachers’ union to negotiate class size and the number of special-needs students in classrooms but the B.C. Teachers’ Federation says those provisions could now be rolled back.
Teachers have been without a contract since June and recently rejected a mediator’s report that recommended the union accept a three-year contract with an annual two-per-cent salary increase.
The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association says the top court also ruled parties have the right to negotiate class size and composition and school boards maintain the old language is out of date.
Unifor, which represents transit workers embroiled in the current dispute, will return to the bargaining table on Wednesday. However, the union also announced job action would escalate by Friday with drivers refusing overtime if a deal is not reached with the Coast Mountain Bus Company.
Horgan said Tuesday he was grateful to hear the union and company have agreed to resume talks.
“I believe in free collective bargaining,” he said. “I’m hopeful that both sides will be able to find an agreement so the travelling public will carry on and about their business. That’s the objective that we all want, whether on the workers’ side of the table or the employers’ side of the table.”
Knight said this is a critical stage in the transit dispute.
“The next few days are really important for the parties to get down to business themselves and hopefully that will result in progress.”
He added the provincial government “can’t go crazy” in terms of making promises it can’t keep if it wants to stay in power, especially because the province’s forestry sector is in a slump, with 2,500 coastal forest workers employed at five Western Forest Products sawmills on strike since July.
Leslie Remund, executive director of the 411 Seniors Centre Society, said a potential transit strike is a “huge” concern because 90 per cent of the elderly people who drop in for services are dependent on buses to get around.
“The majority of our seniors are low-income seniors. They’re (living) cheque to cheque as it is right now so the option of cabs or other alternative transportation isn’t realistic or viable for them.”
The society, which relies on 150 senior volunteers, has been considering alternatives such as carpooling with the help of the community to keep seniors connected with each other if there is a transit strike.
“Our biggest concern is seniors will be at home isolated and not be able to be with their peers or get out,” Remund said. “We’re concerned about their ability to meet their medical appointments or their basic needs of shopping.”
For now, seniors at the centre are supporting transit workers, she said.
Maggie Taylor, 70, said she remembers the hardships for commuters during the four-month transit strike in 2001 when she was still driving.
“There was a lot of organizing at work or trying to pick up somebody at the corner or something like that.”
Since then, the Vancouver region has drawn more people and many are dependent on what has become a broader transit system so a lengthy strike would create chaos, Taylor said.
Another public-sector dispute involves striking faculty members at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George. Classes have been cancelled for about 3,500 students since members of the Faculty Association walked out last week to back demands for improved wages and wage parity among instructors.
On Vancouver Island, support workers including education assistants and custodians at 18 schools in the Saanich district have been on strike over wages since Oct. 28, leaving about 7,000 students out of class.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press