Update on May 3, 2012: A tentative deal between Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1229 and Acadian Coach Lines has been reached.
Fredericton – Glen Carr says the blame lies with Acadian Coach Lines, and not the workers, for the five month absence of intercity bus service in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local No. 1229 says his workers deserve a fair contract and to be treated with the same respect as bus drivers in other provinces.
“We want to know the company’s intentions when we resume talks on Sunday. Are they here to negotiate in good faith with their workers or are they using us pawns to get money from the provincial government to make their operations even more profitable?” questions Carr. The union representing locked-out New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island bus drivers, mechanics and sales agents will resume talks with their employer, Acadian Coach Lines, on Sunday, April 29th in Moncton.
Workers voted 98 per cent in favour of strike action last October. Acadian Coach Lines, a subsidiary of Keolis from France, locked out 59 of their workers on Dec. 2, 2011 after workers rejected what they called an insulting contract. Acadian Coach Lines offered zero per cent wage increases over the next five years. Carr says that’s not fair as Acadian’s parent company, Groupe Orleans Express, has raised the salaries of their Quebec and Nova Scotia drivers. The contract was rejected by 88 per cent of the voting union membership in late November. Carr says the union is fighting for seniority rights, sick time benefits, pensions and a wage increase that reflects the rise in the cost of living. The union is asking for a four per cent wage increase over the next five years.
The union has asked the company to return to the table and resume talks with a federally appointed mediator a number of times so they could return to work immediately and resume the bus service but the company has rejected the offers. Carr said his union may be seeking binding interest arbitration since Acadian Coach Line’s lockout is affecting a public service and there has been unjustified interference in the free collective bargaining process.
New Brunswick’s Transportation Minister, Claude Williams, and federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt’s office have said they will not intervene in the labour dispute. They are encouraging the two parties to reach an agreement.
The lack of intercity bus service is one issue that candidates running in New Brunswick’s municipal elections are hearing when they go door to door. Matthew Hayes, a mayoral candidate in Fredericton, met with Carr on the eve of the talks, April 27th, to discuss how municipalities could draw attention to the lockout and lobby the province to get the sides back to the bargaining table. Hayes, a professor of sociology at St. Thomas University, has participated in recent picket lines and marches in support of locked-out bus drivers and postal workers, and striking airport workers seeking a fair deal.
Hayes says he will join the 10,000 people who have answered the union’s call to write company management demanding that they bargain in good faith with their workers. “Many Frederictonians rely on the intercity bus system, and it is imperative that we come to a fair resolution quickly. The two sides should be at the table, bargaining,” says Hayes. ATU Local 1229 is supporting Hayes in the upcoming election. “We are proud that he stands up for the people and wish him good luck on being elected,” says Carr.
Acadian Coach Lines made headline news in 2010 when they proposed the elimination of a number of routes in New Brunswick. The New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) heard from the bus drivers’ union, bus users, students, environmental groups and others opposed to the route cuts. Carr told the board that it was time that the Alward government look at the Saskatchewan model. The bus service in Saskatchewan is run by a Crown corporation and is turning a profit for the province year after year. The Saskatchewan Transportation Company, operating at arm’s length from the government, has 28 routes and services 275 communities.
The EUB decided to grant some of what Acadian Coach Lines was requesting; the St. Stephen to Maine route was eliminated and service was reduced on some less profitable routes while service was increased on corridor routes running between the cities of Moncton, Fredericton, Saint John and Halifax. The corridor routes between these cities will either have no stops or limited stops along their routes. The company says that their proposal is aimed at increasing their ridership and reducing their financial losses.
Margaret O’Brien, a resident of Maine, expressed her disappointment at the EUB decision to cancel the St. Stephen to Maine route back in October 2010. O’Brien said that her 77-year old mother used the bus service to visit her because she was no longer able to drive long distances. “It was a very convenient and affordable way for her to travel,” said O’Brien.
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick says the EUB’s decision to permit Acadian Bus Lines to reduce service to regions of the province demonstrates the need for government involvement in providing public transportation. “We recommend that the provincial government establish a Crown agency to develop a public transportation network for New Brunswick over the next four years,” states David Coon, Executive Director at CCNB. “The Crown agency can look at models in sparsely populated areas such as Southeast Minnesota, where government support has enabled the Semcac Community Action Agency to operate small buses to provide in and out of town transit. The provincial Crown agency could also help coordinate the various forms of transit in order to make transfers easier.”
Students, seniors, those who choose not to drive a car for environmental or economic reasons and many others who rely on intercity bus service for transport are being left stranded because a private company concerned primarily with increasing profits is operating an essential public service that ultimately needs planning in order to meet the needs of the population. Carr says some of locked out bus drivers, mechanics and sales agents that he represents have been forced to take on part-time work to make ends meet.
Tracy Glynn is a member of the board of the NB Media Co-op.