British Columbia

'The system works': Why the province has no plans to make transit an essential service

The fact that a region-wide bus strike was avoided in Metro Vancouver is proof there is no need to declare transit an essential service, says B.C.'s labour minister.

Last-minute resolution averting bus strike proves collective bargaining is way to go, labour minister says

Industrial and labour relations expert Thomas Knight says that, given the NDP party's traditional affiliation and support for organized labour, he does not expect transit to become an essential service anytime soon. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The fact that a region-wide bus strike was avoided in Metro Vancouver is proof there is no need to declare transit an essential service, says B.C.'s labour minister.

"What is clear here is that free collective bargaining works in this province," said Harry Bains, who commended the union representing transit workers and Coast Mountain Bus Company for reaching an agreement.

The agreement was reached just before 12:30 a.m. PT Wednesday, almost four weeks after transit workers first launched job action, including refusing overtime and not wearing uniforms, on Nov. 1.

Those workers were preparing to walk off the job for three days starting Wednesday, which would have left hundreds of thousands of commuters without bus and SeaBus service.

According to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, essential services are those related to the health, safety and welfare of British Columbians. The Labour Relations Code requires employers and unions to maintain essential services to the public when they take job action in a labour dispute.

If transit was considered an essential service, it's likely full-scale strikes like the one just proposed by bus workers would not be possible by law. 

A TransLink bus driver wearing regular clothes and a union tuque while on the job on Nov. 1, the day job action started. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"[The union and company] realized the time had come and they needed to put a collective agreement together and save headaches and worries and concerns of many transit riders," Bains said. "So, the system works."

The fact that the last transit strike was 18 years ago is more proof collective bargaining is effective, the minister said.

But Jas Johal, the Liberal MLA for Richmond-Queensborough, said it is vital for the government to be able to intervene earlier during a transit dispute.

"We've built our city around SkyTrains and bus routes now," said Johal. "We cannot shut it down. It is a main arterial point all over the city in regards to business, in regards to how we work and play. We cannot let this stuff be left to the last minute."

Thomas Knight, professor of industry relations at UBC, said transit in Toronto is considered by law to be an essential service, but he does not anticipate that happening here.

"I would not expect at any time soon for an NDP government to bring that forward," he said, noting the party's traditional affiliation and support for organized labour.

He said there could be arguments made for transit as an essential service around the concept of welfare in the B.C. Labour Relations Code but he doesn't anticipate it happening on Premier John Horgan's watch.

According to Knight, there is evidence to support that agreements reached during collective bargaining tend to be better for workers and companies in the long run.

Unifor members cheer after announcing escalating job action on Nov. 20. An agreement was reached before a full-scale bus strike began. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jonathan Cote, chair of the Mayors Council on Regional Transportation and mayor of New Westminster, said it is at the province's discretion to make transit an essential service.

"I think there are certainly some aspects and some vulnerabilities of people that are very dependent on transit like getting to hospitals or teaching university," said Cote in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition Thursday. 

"But I think there still has to be a role to allow proper negotiations and fair labour relations to occur," he added.

Although a bus strike has been averted, staff of the B.C. Rapid Transit Company, which operates SkyTrain, voted overwhelmingly in support of job action last week. The SkyTrain workers' union, which is different to the bus drivers' union, has not yet given notice of any disruptions of service.

Bains said the SkyTrain bargaining committees are scheduled to meet with a mediator in the coming weeks and he is confident collective bargaining will do the trick during those talks as well.

With files from The Early Edition and Tanya Fletcher