Don’t look now, but the BC NDP government is suddenly finding itself trying to put out all kinds of fires on an issue that gives the NDP fits like no other party in power: labour disputes.
The prospect of an escalating transit strike in Metro Vancouver may prove to be nightmarish for the BC NDP. The party won the election because it picked up seats in the suburbs, where reliance on a dependable transit system is crucial.
As that strike gradually grows to include the inevitable withdrawal 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 BC Liberals – mere months after winning that year’s election – used the legislature hammer an end to a transit strike that had dragged on for more than four months.
The BC NDP, however - with its strong ties to organized labour - has a particular reluctance to interfere in the collective bargaining process. It may eventually find itself torn over placating angry commuters and imposing a settlement that the union will probably not like.
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 come first - no matter its links to unions.
And let’s not forget the BC Teachers’ Federation has yet to negotiate a new contract - with no evidence of any kind of resolution.
A strike by the BCTF cannot be ruled out until that contract is signed.
Lots of other political fires are 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 to extinguish them yet, but it best take care not to be too badly singed here.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.