British Columbia

Transit strike avoided at last minute for a 2nd time — so what does this mean for trust in the system?

For the second time in as many weeks, Vancouver commuters went to bed facing a transit shutdown and woke up with the crisis averted — but that’s not always enough to keep public trust in transit intact, experts say.

The widespread impact of a strike is what makes it so effective and necessary, says UBC business prof

Commuters take the Expo Line SkyTrain at Metrotown station in Burnaby on Tuesday morning, on what was to have been Day 1 of a strike that didn't materialize. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For the second time in as many weeks, Vancouver commuters went to bed facing a transit shutdown and woke up with the crisis averted — but that's not always enough to keep public trust in transit intact, experts say. 

A shutdown of SkyTrain services was narrowly averted when a tentative deal between the workers' union and its employer was reached with literally minutes to spare before it was scheduled to start.

A similar bus strike was called off at the last minute less than two weeks ago, when a middle-of-the-night deal was also reached just before transit disruptions were set to start. 

"Having the settlements reached shortly before a strike deadline like this is fairly common — the proverbial 11th hour deal," said Mark Thompson, a professor emeritus at UBC's Sauder School of Business. 

"One of the necessary traits of a negotiator is having a strong stomach and a good constitution because you have a lot of late night work."

A bus driver gives a thumbs up while driving in Vancouver on Nov. 27, 2019, the morning after a weeks-long transit dispute in Metro Vancouver was settled with a tentative agreement. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The widespread impacts of a transit strike on the Lower Mainland and the attention it garnered makes it all seem more dramatic though, Thompson said. 

Prior to the agreement, TransLink had said the proposed SkyTrain shutdown would result in an "unprecedented level of disruption" affecting 150,000 people. 

Commuters began to figure out contingency plans to get around, and businesses prepared for employees not being able to get to work on time. 

A SkyTrain shutdown would have impacted 150,000 commuters. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The prospect of a widespread shut down is bleak — and that's why the threat of a strike is so effective, Thompson said. 

"Both sides feel pressure and that's why we have strikes," he told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition. 

"Collective bargaining is an important element of democracy in Canada and we've seen it work here." 

Backing down from 'the edge'

Bargaining between CUPE 7000, the union representing SkyTrain workers, and the BC Rapid Transit Company focused on issues around wages, forced overtime and staffing levels.

The details of Tuesday's agreement aren't being released until the deal is ratified by union members.  

Andy Yan, the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, says the way the prospective strike panned out should be seen as a success rather than a failure. 

"This is an example where both parties perhaps looked at the edge and decided to just walk back," he said. 

"It reaffirms a level of trust — that both parties could, through a negotiation process, figure things out."

But, he added, the weeks-long threat of commuter chaos points to a larger issue of how public transit is funded in the Lower Mainland. 

He says stable and dependable funding at the government-level should be part of any solution in the long run. 

"Only about 55 percent of the transit system is funded through the fare box and perhaps that needs to be re-examined," Yan said. 

With files from The Early Edition

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