Vaughn Palmer: Horgan content to let transit dispute play out

Credit to Author: Gord Kurenoff| Date: Thu, 07 Nov 2019 01:27:20 +0000

VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan was quick to squash any notion this week that his government would intervene in the emerging labour dispute over transit services in Metro Vancouver.

“We have no plans to interfere in that,” Horgan said Tuesday. “I’m hopeful that a resolution can be found quickly for the travelling public, but at this point, there’s not a role for the province to play.

“We believe that collective bargaining should happen at the bargaining table, not on the evening news,” he told reporters when the matter was raised a second time. “But I’d be happy to be on the evening news tonight with the answer I just gave you.”

He was not kidding for several reasons.

The New Democrats, with their roots in the labour movement, support the right to strike and believe labour disputes ought to be resolved by free collective bargaining.

Though the two sides in the transit dispute are far apart and dug in, there’d be no hope of movement if the province even hinted at a willingness to intervene and take them off the hook.

If the government were to intervene, it would also be obliged to provide a means to resolve the dispute.

When the then-newly elected B.C. Liberal government finally ended a months-long bus strike in 2001, it imposed a settlement based largely on the recommendations of a special meditator.

No such outsider recommendations are on the table in this instance. With only two sitting-weeks left in the fall session of the legislature, the New Democrats would be intervening without a roadmap for settlement.

Government intervention would also risk setting a precedent, for this is not the only outstanding labour dispute.

A strike by support workers has shut the schools in Saanich for a second week, and counting. The faculty association this week gave strike notice at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George.

A strike by 3,000 forestry workers is now in its fourth month at Western Forest Products on Vancouver Island.

Another reason for provincial hesitation entails having to wear the cost of the settlement itself.

TransLink estimates that the union’s expectations could use up all of the available funding for expansion of transit services.

If provincially-ordered mediation or arbitration resulted in a settlement that exceeded TransLink’s ability to pay, the province would be pressured to  increase its share of funding. Horgan tried this week to slam the door on that possibility as well.

“One of the commitments we made two years ago was to increase provincial funding for transit projects here in the Lower Mainland from 33 per cent to 40 per cent, taking away some of the pressure on property taxes and other revenue measures that are at the disposal of the Metro mayors’ council.

“So we’ve already stepped up,” the premier told reporters. “We’re doing everything we can to build a robust public transportation system, and we’re funding more than any government has in the past.”

If the New Democrats did intervene to produce a settlement, the terms might cause some blowback for them in other public sector bargaining.

Horgan is proud of the NDP record of success in confining public sector settlements to a cabinet-imposed mandate of two per cent a year for each of three years.

“We’re consistent with that,” he told host Al Ferraby on CFAX radio this week when asked about the shutdown in the Saanich schools.

“Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 70 to 80 per cent of the agreements that we have with hundreds of thousands of workers across the province have been ratified. And we’re hopeful this one will be as well.”

But in the transit dispute, the company offer of 9.6 per cent over four years for bus drivers and the union ask of 15.2 per cent over the same period both exceed the province’s two per cent a year mandate.

Granted, bus drivers and other unionized workers at the regional transportation authority are not part of the provincial public sector and are not subject to the provincial limit.

But workers bound by the provincial guidelines might not see it that way if Horgan’s intervention contributed to bus drivers getting a more generous settlement.

One can readily imagine the reaction from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, already disappointed that a recent report from a mediator fell short of supporting the union’s quest for a settlement beyond the provincial mandate.

Could Horgan facilitate a settlement for the bus drivers by whatever means, then expect the teachers to take less?

For all of the foregoing reasons, the premier would prefer to wait out the transit dispute and hope for the best.

Back in 2001, the B.C. Liberals were able to take their time. They were new to office plus it was summer time and the schools, colleges and universities were not in session.

Plus as noted by Joy MacPhail, the then-leader of the two-member NDP Opposition, those most hurt by the shutdown of the bus system were not core Liberal supporters: university students, low-income earners, the young, the elderly, the disabled, and people without cars who needed to get to work.

All those same folks would have their lives disrupted if the current dispute were to escalate to a full-blown shutdown of the bus system.

In that event, much as Horgan would sooner undergo a root canal than intervene, he’d have no choice but to act and act quickly.

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