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Bus firm and union agree to mediator's plan to avert Metro Vancouver strike

VANCOUVER — Coast Mountain Bus Company and the union representing its transit supervisors have both accepted the recommendations of a mediator in an agreement that looks set to avert another Metro Vancouver bus strike.

A statement from the bus firm's president, Michael McDaniel, said the next step was to sign a memorandum of agreement before the contract ratification process.

"As the Special Mediator noted, labour disruptions in the Lower Mainland’s public transportation system lead to significant public hardship and negative economic impacts," McDaniel said Thursday.

"Without public transportation, commuters are left stranded, unable to get to work, school or medical appointments."

The announcement came less than two hours after CUPE 4500, the union representing more than 180 supervisors, issued a statement saying it would back the recommendations of special mediator Vince Ready.

The union had set a deadline of 12:01 a.m. on Saturday for a tentative deal to be reached, or it would launch a 72-hour strike, following a stoppage that shut down bus and SeaBus services last week.

Union spokesman Liam O'Neill said in the statement that Ready's proposal doesn't "completely address" the supervisors' issues, but offered the best path for a mutually acceptable settlement.

“For the sake of transit users, and the ongoing relationship between CUPE 4500 members and Coast Mountain, let us put this dispute behind us," O'Neill said.

Neither the union nor the bus firm described the terms of the tentative agreement.

But O'Neill had said there was no need for transit users to face uncertainty.

"The union says these recommendations represent an acceptable compromise for its members and takes sufficient steps to addressing the key issues of CUPE 4500 members," the union's statement said.

Following Thursday's announcement, B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains issued a statement thanking Ready, the company and the union for their work, saying "the best deals are always reached at the bargaining table."

"Understanding that the tentative agreement still needs to be ratified by the union membership, this is positive news for people in Metro Vancouver who count on reliable transit services to get to work and school every day," he said.

The previous two-day strike by more than 180 supervisors was able to halt Coast Mountain services because drivers represented by a different union refused to cross picket lines.

Meanwhile, TransLink, the regional transit authority, said it had applied to the B.C. Labour Relations Board to be designated an essential service, as the deadline for the strike action loomed.

The application came before the union and bus firm said they were backing Ready's recommendations.

TransLink said in a statement that it understood its bus and rail operators, including Coast Mountain Bus Company, had separately sought the same designation.

The province's labour laws say a service can be considered essential if a "dispute poses a threat to the health, safety or welfare of the residents of British Columbia."

If the labour board believes the transit operators should be considered essential, it would make a recommendation to Labour Minister Harry Bains who would be the one to officially order the designation.

The board and both sides would then have to settle on which jobs would be covered, and the union would not have the legal right to picket at any entity designated an essential service provider.

Barry Eidlin, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University with a focus on labour policy, said there was a "very real question" whether a labour minister for B.C.'s New Democrats would impose an essential service designation.

He said NDP governments rely a lot on support from labour groups.

"They may come to the conclusion that the potential downside of having a huge disruptive strike of all public transit in the Vancouver region is going to be worse than the blowback they would get from their labour allies for essentially imposing a form of back-to-work legislation," he said.

"But that's going to be a tough call for Harry Bains."

Eidlin said labour laws differ across provinces and territories and the argument over what counts as an essential service is frequently a "flashpoint of contention."

He called pursuit of the designation an effort to undermine the right to strike and force workers back on the job without addressing underlying issues that led to the dispute in the first place.

"(It) does not resolve those underlying issues and sets the stage for further disruptions and disputes down the road," he said.

The focus is now on the mediated agreement, but the two sides have also been facing off in labour relations board hearings.

The board said in a ruling issued Wednesday that Coast Mountain broke labour rules by using replacement workers during the first strike that ended Jan. 24, but says the breach was minimal and declined to award damages or order further investigations.

The union had complained that Coast Mountain used replacement workers during the 48-hour strike.

The board said in its decision that the bus company made "significant efforts" to minimize the breach, and the union even complimented the firm for its handling of replacement worker issues before lodging the complaint.

The labour board is hearing a separate complaint by CUPE 4500 against Coast Mountain and TransLink that it unfairly tried to reduce the strike's impact.

The union had previously said that if the ongoing labour complaint was upheld, and a mediated deal wasn't struck by Saturday, pickets would shut down SkyTrain operations too.

Coast Mountain provides 96 per cent of all Metro Vancouver Bus services, as well as the SeaBus service across Burrard Inlet.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press