Metro Vancouver bus service shutdown averted, tentative deal reached

Bus service in Metro Vancouver is returning to normal service Wednesday after a tentative deal was reached between the union representing thousands of transit workers and Coast Mountain Bus Company shortly after midnight, ending job action and narrowly averting a complete suspension of the region's bus system.

The agreement was reached just before 12:30 a.m. PT, after the previous midnight deadline was extended by the union.

"This has been one heck of a day," said Jerry Dias, Unifor's national president, speaking to reporters from a downtown hotel after a day of negotiations. "But I'm here to announce that we have a tentative agreement with TransLink."

Coast Mountain Bus Company handles bus service in the region on behalf of TransLink.

Unionized workers had pledged to walk off the job on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday if a deal was not reached by midnight. The strike would have shut down the bus system across the region, leaving about 350,000 passengers and commuters scrambling for other forms of transportation.

Passengers at the Vancouver intersection of Cambie and Broadway before dawn on Wednesday were unanimously relieved after waking up to learn their commutes hadn't been plunged into chaos overnight. The intersection is a major transit hub in the city, with arterial rapid transit and buses running in all directions.

Ben Nelms/CBC

"I would have had to hire a taxi," said Jim Jordons, who was able to catch his usual bus from his home about 40 blocks south of the intersection. "I'm doing a job with low wages, so that wouldn't be good for me."

Marin Xhepa woke up uncharacteristically early at 4:30 a.m. to give himself enough time to walk to the SkyTrain, thinking his preferred bus would be cancelled. A text from a friend brought him up to speed.

"I think I'm going to go home and relax a little bit ... get myself a cup of coffee," Xhepa said, suddenly finding himself with time to spare well before dawn.

TransLink has asked passengers to expect "longer than usual" wait times Wednesday as the bus system gets back to normal. The SeaBus between the North Shore and downtown Vancouver is running normally.

Deal to be approved by vote

Details of the tentative labour deal will be made public following ratification votes in the coming days.

"As a result of this agreement, our employees will benefit from a competitive package which features improved wages, benefits, and working conditions," said Michael McDaniel, the president of Coast Mountain Bus Company, in a statement. 

B.C. Minister of Labour Harry Bains said he was relieved to hear news of the deal. He said he stayed in the loop on the progress of negotiations on Tuesday night, but was not directly involved in the agreement.

"If you allow the collective bargaining process to take its course, most of the time, it works," Bains told CBC's The Early Edition on Wednesday. "I commend [the two parties] because they put their customer, the transit rider, first."

Ben Nelms/CBC

Unifor workers set up tents and banners on the would-be picket line in front of the Hudson Street transit centre in Vancouver late Tuesday, in case the strike did go forward. The red, union-branded canvas came down nearly as fast as it went up once news of the deal trickled down to staff. 

Several dozen workers huddled around cellphones, clouds of breath visible in the cool night air, eagerly waiting for details of the deal.

"We're always concerned about our passengers, getting them where they're going," Unifor representative Jamie Renwick said, standing at the transit centre ahead of the agreement. 

"But at the same time ... and we'll continue to collectively bargain with them in search of a fair contract."

Transit staff first launched job action on Nov. 1. The key issues at the heart of the dispute with the bus company were wages and working conditions. Unifor had said the salaries of their employees weren't comparable to salaries in other major cities.

On Wednesday morning, TransLink spokesperson Ben Murphy said "both sides walked away pleased" when negotiations ended.

"And that is not easy," he added.