The View from a HandyDart Driver’s Seat

The Tyee

By Tom Sandborn

People are mad at strikers for stranding the disabled. Here’s another side you haven’t heard.

This was my job. Driving all day in fair weather and foul, finding my way through every traffic snarl imaginable. At each stop, I would climb in and out of my bus to operate a hydraulic lift to move wheelchair passengers on and off, then would quickly deploy elaborate strap-down technologies to keep the wheelchairs from shifting while I drove. I would engage passengers, many of them in physical and emotional pain, in conversations that could, sometimes without warning, plunge both of us into sadness. All the while, I would need to stay alert for radio signals from the dispatch office, signs of health emergencies among my passengers, and that erratic driver over there on the left or right who maybe didn’t see me coming.

Some days my duties would include cleaning vomit and other bodily fluids out of my bus. Every day, I would move in and out of the viral soup on offer in the hallways of general hospitals, dialysis and cancer clinics, senior residences and day care centres, finding myself on the sick list several times a year with an array of colds, flus and other ailments.

This was my job for two decades until, many years ago, I retired. I knew that some of my colleagues had built up solid pensions because they drove HandyDarts for other employers in the region. But I wasn’t one of those more fortunate ones. When I parked my bus for the last time, I was left not with a real pension but with an RRSP bundle worth but a few thousand dollars.

Now I see all of my fellow HandyDart drivers are facing having their pensions stripped and replaced with RRSPs, as well as other cuts to benefits and a wage settlement they find insulting. And I see that because they have responded by going out on strike, they are getting beaten up a fair bit in public. As you can tell, my personal experience makes it impossible for me to pretend to be an unbiased journalist on this one.

‘Distasteful’ strikers

To judge by most of the mainstream press coverage, the issues involved in the current labour dispute between HandyDart employees and their American based employer MVT Canada Bus are very simple. “HandyDart Strike Strands Passengers,” screams one headline, while the Vancouver Sun sniffs “HandyDart bus strike leaves special needs transit riders behind,” and the Globe and Mail headline casts innocent seniors as the victims of heartless union thugs shutting down their specialized transit system. The Province’s John Ferry weighed in with a call for banning all public service strikes, accusing the HandyDart strike, which began on Oct. 26, of being “distasteful” and “stranding folks with disabilities.”

This is all pretty heart-wrenching and makes for a compelling read, but it fails to convey the whole story. Namely, that MVT workers deserve a better offer than they have so far received from their employer.

As I say, I am a former worker in the HandyDart system, and belonged for decades to the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the union embroiled in the dispute. I came to know that driving or dispatching HandyDart vehicles represented as much a calling as a paycheque. My fellow drivers were unusually empathic with passenger pain and discomfort, quick to tell a joke or listen patiently to passenger stories while at the same time trying to figure out alternate routes when main streets clogged up and responding to incessant radio traffic. Office workers and dispatchers worked valiantly to make an imperfect and patchworks system as effective as humanly possible. We knew our wages were many dollars an hour lower than other bus drivers in the Lower Mainland, and that the pension arrangements were laughable. We weren’t saints, of course, but the workers who stuck it out in the system were an extraordinary bunch of people, compassionate, resourceful, funny and diligent. It was an honour to know and work with them.

“In the past, HandyDart workers have lived with wages that were grossly substandard in the transit system,” Tyler Felbel, a driver for 17 years and the union’s media liaison told me recently. “We enjoy having a job where we can feel that we are helping people. Through our work, we get to know our passengers and really care about their needs. We apologize sincerely to our passengers for the inconvenience, but we firmly believe we need to take a stand now to protect the future of this service.”

New US employer plays hardball

During the decades I worked in HandyDart, the service was delivered by a patchwork of service providers across the Lower Mainland, and some of the employers in other municipalities had been persuaded in collective bargaining to provide livable pension plans. But now MVT Canadian Bus, the U.S.-based transit giant that has been given an overarching contract to deliver HandyDart service across the Lower Mainland, is playing hardball with its employees, proposing a new contract that would still leave HandyDart employees many dollars an hour behind people doing similar work in other Translink services and eliminating the fairly decent pension plans that 60 per cent of HandyDart employees had finally won under their earlier collective agreements.

“The compensation being offered by this American for-profit company,” says Felbel, “does not encourage long-term employment and the valuable experience that comes with it. We believe that the vast majority of passengers support us. I know that the seniors we serve will understand. We need to keep our pension plan so that we can live with dignity when we eventually become unable to continue working.”

MVT Canadian Bus assumed control of Lower Mainland HandyDart service providers on Jan. 1 this year, after a murky bidding process, given the blessing of the provincial government, that some observers have characterized as unfair.

A brief HandyDart history

The takeover ended a period of locally controlled specialized transit services that began in 1981 with the province awarding a first contract for service delivery in Vancouver to the Pacific Transit Co-op, a user controlled society that placed control squarely in the hands of a board elected by mobility-challenged transit users. For ex-Vancouver city councilor Tim Louis, then a law student, the funding of a service controlled by Pacific represented the triumphant conclusion to four years of agitation and lobbying that he had led together with other young disability activists like Debby Krentz, Taz Pirbhai, Brian Cruikshank, Mary Nobes and Paul Jones. Over the next decades, HandyDart services expanded across the Lower Mainland and into some Interior and Island municipalities.

Louis, who served for many years on the board of directors of Pacific Transit, opposed the Translink decision to shift the lucrative operating contract (estimated at $113 million over three years) to MVT. He told me that HandyDart service had been delivered in B.C. for over 27 years without a labour dispute.

“MVT says it has increased trips per vehicle hour,” he said, “and that may well be true. But the new operator has shown no ability to treat workers with a modicum of respect. What Translink should have done was to specify good labour relations as one of the requirements for a successful bidder on the contract. Now, they should instruct MVT to get back to the bargaining table and withdraw their demands for takeaways.”

Dave Watt, president of the ATU local that represents all Lower Mainland HandyDart workers now, agrees. In a recent press release, he says:

“This company has already gotten the money from Translink to give us a decent collective agreement. Instead, they are trying to maximize their profit margin by taking away our pension plan. Sixty per cent of our members were previously in the Municipal Pension Plan, and 95 per cent would have been in by next spring. An RRSP is not a pension, it’s a savings plan that anyone could buy for themselves. They also want to cap our health benefits and cut them entirely for casuals, which would make it profitable for them to reduce full-time jobs. They are proposing language which would allow them to contract out our office and maintenance workers. There are numerous other concessions and unacceptable proposals on surveillance of our members and discipline.”

Coast Mountain driver envy

To put the wage issue in perspective, Watt says, MVT is offering a wage of $21 for drivers upon ratification, with no retroactive pay. He notes that the rate for Coast Mountain regular transit drivers after the first two years of employment is $28.35.

“A previous job evaluation for the District of Nanaimo and an arbitration by Vince Ready have supported that HandyDart drivers’ work is of equal value to regular transit,” he says.

What the MVT people told me

I called MVT to get their perspective on the union complaints about the firm’s offer. Zdenka Buric, who speaks for MVT locally, said that the offer represented a wage hike for 60 per cent of drivers and dismissed complaints about the firm’s intention to replace municipal style pensions with employer contribution RRSPs.

“Lots of Canadians rely on RRSPs as their retirement package,” she said. “And the nice thing here is that the employer will contribute.”

MVT certainly began its management stint in the Lower Mainland professing good intentions and high hopes. Here is part of a press release issued in January:

“We are looking forward to a long and successful relationship with TransLink, the HandyDart passengers and the Vancouver community,” said Kevin Klika, MV’s chief operating officer. “We are excited to have this opportunity to bring our unique approach to paratransit to British Columbia; an approach that will bring to fruition service improvements passengers of the region have been looking forward to for some time MVT is the Canadian subsidiary of MV Transportation Inc. of Fairfield California. MV Transportation Inc. currently has 185 passenger transportation contracts across the US and Canada, and has established a reputation for strong customer service, innovative operations and on-time performance.”

Troubling accounts from US

But union spokespeople in B.C. point out some disquieting accounts from MVT’s record in the U.S., stories that pose questions about just what the company’s unique approach to paratransit entails.

In Washington D.C., for example, the Post reports that the MVT operation there experiences more than 100 per cent staff turn over annually, a churning that cannot contribute to skilled, experienced service delivery. In a National Labour Relations Board finding from Minnesota, the company is accused of the following labour abuses:

“On the following dates, and by the following actions, Respondent interfered with, restrained, and coerced employees in the exercise of Section 7 rights, thereby violating Section 8(a)(1):

A. Coercively interrogating its employees about their union activities on two occasions about September 12, 2005, and on February 20, 2006;

B. Threatening employees with loss of benefits, loss of jobs, and unspecified retaliation for their union activity, on two occasions about September 12, 2005 about late September or early October 2005, and December 8, 2005;

C. Promising employees money and overtime assignments about late September or early October 2005, if they discontinued union activities;

D. Creating the impression to employees that their union activities were under surveillance on two occasions about September 12, 2005, about late September or early October 2005, and on February 20, 2006;

E. Informing employees that selecting a union to represent them would be futile on three occasions about September 12, 2005, and about November, 2005;

F. Pushing an employee so that she stumbled against a wall on February, 21, 2006.”

MVT was involved in an incident in Northampton, Massachusetts, that resulted in a passenger death due to a driver mistake. In Philadelphia, a MVT driver was accused of sexual assault on a passenger, while in another Minnesota incident, the company is accused of racist mistreatment of workers.

None of these incidents, union sources told me, inspire confidence that MVT is the right operator to deliver HandyDart services in the Lower Mainland, or that workers can expect a fair deal at the negotiating table.

MVT’s Buric told me that she was unwilling to comment on her parent company’s legal and labour relations troubles in the U.S. She noted that MVT Canadian Bus is a wholly owned subsidiary of the American firm, which she described as the largest provider of specialized transit services in North America.

How to get rolling again

As I wrote this article, talks had broken down between MVT and their unionized employees, with both union and company blaming the other side for the lack of progress. Meanwhile, only about 10 per cent of Lower Mainland HandyDart passengers (those deemed covered by an essential services ruling from the Labour Relations Board because of their need to attend kidney or cancer treatment clinics) are able to get rides. Normally, the system delivers close to 5,000 trips a day. Clearly, it is important that this vital service be restored as soon as possible.

What remains to be seen is whether service will be restored in a way that respects the legitimate concerns of employees about their own future security when they retire, or whether the solution will lie in an imposed agreement that ignores those concerns.

Anyone who has watched the current government’s treatment of its paramedics recently will be excused if the second and more pessimistic scenario seems more likely, if not more palatable.

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