BALDREY: NDP playing with fire in multiple labour disputes

Don’t look now, but the NDP government is suddenly finding itself trying to put out all kinds of fires, both big and small ones.

Moreover, for the first time since forming government a little more than two years ago, some of these blazes deal with an issue that gives the NDP the fits like no other party in power: labour disputes.

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The prospect of an escalating transit strike in Metro Vancouver may prove to be nightmarish for the NDP. The party won the election because it picked up seats in the suburbs, where reliance on a dependable transit system is a crucial issue for many residents.

As that strike gradually grows to include the inevitable withdrawable of services by bus drivers, the pressure on the government to end the strike will be enormous, likely through a legislated settlement.

That is what happened back in 2001, when the B.C. Liberals – mere months after winning that year’s election – used the legislature hammer to end a transit strike that had dragged on for more than four months.

The B.C. Liberals had no problem with bringing in that legislation, which was a popular move at the time with a riding public whose patience had become exhausted.

However, the NDP, with its strong ties to organized labour, has a particular reluctance to interfering in the collective bargaining process. It may eventually find itself torn over placating angry commuters (read: voters) and imposing a settlement that the union will probably not like.

Of course, it is not as if the party has not stared down a union before. When it was in government in the 1990s, it legislated an end to a couple of strikes in the education system.

There is no question the NDP wants, and needs, labour peace on the transit front. Aside from satisfying the riding public, the government wants shovels in the ground as soon as possible for two key projects: the Broadway SkyTrain extension and a new Surrey rapid transit line.

TransLink has estimated the gap between what the employer is offering and what the union is seeking when it comes to wages and benefits amounts to about $600 million. That can only be closed through a range of tax hikes, or a scaled-back expansion plan that may jeopardize those projects.

The union wants the transit expansion projects to be scaled back or at least delayed in order to fund what it is seeking from the employer. It should not expect much sympathy from a government whose political interests will likely come first, no matter its links to unions.

Also, do not expect the region’s mayors to suddenly agree to enact a bunch of new or expanded revenue measures to meet any new contract costs. It was almost a political miracle to get them to sign off on even the current plan for transit expansion.

In other words, this labour dispute has all the earmarks of a lengthy showdown. However, given that it may disrupt college and universities in a way the 2001 dispute did not, I suspect the government may step in much sooner than it did back then.

Meanwhile, a much smaller strike may provide a sneak preview of what could occur on a much larger scale come the spring. That would be the CUPE strike involving support staff in the Saanich school district.

As of this column’s writing, the strike was heading into its second week and schools were closed as teachers have respected CUPE’s picket line.

Hopefully it ends soon, but the strike serves as a reminder of the fact that the B.C. Teachers Federation has yet to negotiate a new contract and there is no evidence it will be able to do that any time soon.

Therefore, a strike by the BCTF, while certainly not on the horizon, cannot be ruled out until that contract is signed.

There are a lot of other political fires springing up as well: the ongoing financial mess at ICBC, the softening economy and its negative impact on the government’s bottom line are some biggies.

However, the emerging labour fires may dwarf everything unless they are handled well. The NDP has not tried extinguishing them yet, but it best take care not to be too badly singed here.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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