Now that the Canadian Auto Workers Local 333 and B.C. Transit have come to an agreement, it’s time for the province and the Capital Regional District to call public transit what it is, an essential service, and designate it as such.
Negotiations last week ended a lengthy, partial bus strike while narrowly averting a complete transit shutdown in the capital that was slated to take place on Jan. 22. While the worst is over, the effect of the partial strike will be felt for some time as backlogged maintenance will reduce the number of buses on the roads for several weeks until repairs are completed.
Those who would have been most affected by a complete transit shutdown are the young, the old and the poor. Countless public-school students rely on buses to move safely between home and the classroom. University students are often forced to pay transit fees as a mandatory component of tuition and are similarly disadvantaged by the risk of bus strikes. Students in college and university programs rely overwhelmingly on public transit to buy groceries, get to work on time or commute to classes.
The truth is, those in society who rely most heavily on public transit are those who can least afford to be held hostage by labour or policy disputes.
A lack of dependable public transit is a direct barrier for many retirees and elderly citizens in trying to access health care. This most basic failure of service has the potential to render Canadians immobile and forces many in society to cancel their plans, commitments or obligations while their lives are arbitrarily put on hold by politicians and union negotiators.
The poor, young and elderly who rely on public transit just to get around are for the most part marginalized by a lack of political representation and a societal indifference to their situation, which allows transit strikes to drag on for months.
Most disconcertingly, public transit is frequently billed by a host of agencies as a viable alternative mode of transportation to driving. However, as the ever-present threat of strikes demonstrates, there is a genuine gap in the image of transit presented to the public and how it may play out on the roads in the case of comprehensive or even partial labour action.
It is therefore time for British Columbia legislators to add public transportation, or at least limited “accessibility transit,” to essential services legislation. Essential Services in B.C. already include vital police and health-care positions that are necessary and demanded by society no matter the temporary political or economic climate.
This action should not be taken as an effort to attack labour disputes at large. Transit unions should be offered alternative means of negotiation and bargaining based on the model of health-care unions. Such legal protection would, however, partially insulate those who are most vulnerable to the impact of unreliable public transit.
Not only would the young, the old and the poor benefit from designating transit as an essential service, but as a whole, the Capital Regional District would reduce traffic congestion and show public transit as a true alternative to driving.
Brody McDonald is an international-relations student at the University of Victoria, and serves as director of communications for the Undergraduates of Political Science.
© Copyright 2013