Nova Scotia

Metro Transit workers postpone midnight strike

Representatives from the two sides of the Metro Transit contract dispute decided to meet again on Wednesday night, just minutes before the midnight strike deadline.

Bus riders making carpool and other plans

Many bus riders in Lower Sackville say they will carpool. (Phonse Jessome/CBC)

Representatives from the two sides of the Metro Transit contract dispute decided to meet again on Wednesday night, just minutes before the midnight strike deadline.

Ken Wilson, president of Local 508 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told CBC News he got a call from a representative for the city at 11:25 p.m. AT to head back to the table.

As he headed into the negotiating room at the Holiday Inn Halifax Harbourview hotel in Dartmouth just after midnight, Wilson told reporters, "It's a sign. We'll see what happens."

Less than 10 minutes after that, union members walked out and went up to a hotel room with a "No comment."

When asked if the workers would still go on strike, Wilson said, "Stick around."

The last talks between representatives from the union and Metro Transit had broken off at about 6:15 p.m. AT.

Wilson said the municipality had not changed its position since the amended final offer, which was presented on Jan. 29.

The sticking point, he said, is the issue of scheduling. The union wants to continue to have control over which workers fill which shifts, while Metro Transit wants to chance that practice.

That issue of rostering had remained on the table throughout the negotiations.

"If rostering is still there we're going to have a strike, it's just that simple. We gave them solutions to avoid, that they don't need rostering," said Wilson.

"The problem is that they just don't understand it, they don't understand the business and that's the issue. That's blatantly obvious, the whole round of bargaining, right from the beginning — this employer had an agenda."

Metro Transit director Eddie Robar also spoke briefly with reporters and said the city will not budge on the issue of scheduling.

"Right now, because of the way they pick their work now, we end up with about 87 to 100 pieces of work in a week that we're unable to cover with the people that we have," Robar said.

"We end up calling in people on overtime to try and fill those shifts on a daily basis."

Commuters scramble to make plans

Earlier in the day, Wilson, Robar and a conciliator met for a one-hour meeting. Wilson called it an "informal" discussion.

"The whole purpose was, sometimes you can get more accomplished with two people in the room so we thought we could have a conversation, air out our differences, air out maybe some resolves to this, a little bit of back and forth," he told CBC News.

"I told him that I would bring some of his concerns to my team as he brings some of my concerns to his team. And we would contact each other and see if we could work on resolving to get back to the table."

Although both sides went back to the table on Wednesday afternoon — sparking hopes among thousands of commuters that a strike would be averted — talks stalled and the two sides appeared to be at an impasse.

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With the strike deadline looming, transit users scrambled to make alternate plans.

CBC reporter Phonse Jessome said the bus riders he spoke to in Lower Sackville were angry.

"When I ask them what advice do you give to the bargaining teams — both teams — they say, 'Get back to the table and settle this thing, this service is simply too important,'" Jessome said Wednesday.

Many riders said they're making plans to carpool. Some said they're worried there will be nowhere to park in downtown Halifax.

Scheduling key issue

Metro Transit said the union wants a raise of three per cent per year over a three-year contract, and it's offering four per cent over two years. In the city's last offer, it also said it would not ask for the ability to hire part-time workers or contract out work.

But Wilson said the key outstanding issue remains scheduling, not wages.

He said Metro Transit wants to set more rigid work schedules, meaning workers would lose the flexibility in picking shifts that they have now.

"We have to keep in mind that the average bus operator has a 60-hour work week for 40 hours of pay. We get off at Mumford and have to come back to Burnside on our own time to get our own vehicle. So we deal with that, because that's the industry. We understand that," said Wilson.

"All we're asking for is what we've always had — we've always had the flexibility to work around our families."

The last transit strike in Halifax was in 1998. The service has grown since then, with Metro Transit running more than 3,200 bus trips a day.

Metro Transit said it's making contingency plans for the 45 people who rely on its services to get to a dialysis clinic for regular treatments.