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Garbage strike could spoil Vancouver's summer

There's never a good time for a garbage strike, but Vancouver's famously stunning natural beauty is about to be soiled just as the city hits the crescendo of its tourist season.
Refuse container in downtown Vancouver filled after city workers went on strike
A refuse container in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia is stuffed to capacity after garbage collectors and several thousand other city workers went on strike on July 23. Officials worry the city's image as a tourist destination could start to suffer. Andy Clark / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

There's never a good time for a garbage strike, but Vancouver's famously stunning natural beauty is about to be soiled just as the city hits the crescendo of its tourist season.

Just in time for major summer events, visitors and residents are facing the prospect of steaming piles of trash and closed public washrooms, swimming pools, city golf courses, some day cares and libraries.

While construction cranes dominate the city's skyline, no permits are being issued and water and sewer lines aren't being hooked up.

"If we go on a month or two and there's bulging garbage containers and stuff on the streets and so on, one could expect to see that that would have a deleterious effect," said Dave Park of the Vancouver Board of Trade.

He said the city's image as a tourist destination could start to suffer at some point.

It's a little early to see economic effects just yet, but the booming construction sector could also be disrupted by a lack of permits and inspections.

Some commercial developments won't be hit right away because the city has a program allowing certified professionals — such as architects or engineers — to conduct inspections for projects under the national building code.

"So on some of the larger projects, the non-residential projects, it'll be some time before the impact will be felt," said Keith Sashaw, a staff member at the Vancouver Regional Construction Association.

"On the residential side of things it'll be a bit more immediate because it usually is the municipal building inspector that does those inspections."

Sashaw added the industry anticipated the city's labor troubles and fast-tracked some permits.

Everything from new-home construction to minor renovations could be delayed without inspectors or city crews to hook up water and sewer connections, he said.

Vancouver and North Vancouver District workers began walking off the job last week and Vancouver library staff began rotating job action Tuesday.

Residents are being warned to prepare for a long hot summer of inconvenience, frustration and, eventually, stench.

At least one Vancouver suburb apparently dodged the disruption as the City of Richmond reached a tentative deal with 1,200 workers, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 394.

Details won't be made public until a ratification vote is completed Thursday, but if approved, Richmond and Port Moody will be the only cities across the Lower Mainland to have agreements with their civic employees.

In praising the deal, CUPE chief negotiator Robin Jones made a pointed reference to the stalemated situation across the Fraser River in Vancouver, where about 6,000 people were off the job.

One of the sticking points in Vancouver is the city's insistence on a contract that would extend past the 2010 Olympics.

But Jones noted Richmond is also a host Olympic city.

Paul Faoro, a CUPE leader in Vancouver, said it's "apples and oranges" to compare Vancouver's municipal strike with the deals in Richmond and Port Moody.

Vancouver has insisted on a 39-month contract.

Its unions want either a three-year or four-year deal, and union officials have said they don't want to be bargaining again in the wake of potential cost overruns and cuts after the Games.

Renee Smith-Valade, spokeswoman for Vancouver's Olympic Organizing Committee, said the strike will have no impact on preparation for the Games.

Faoro said the City of Vancouver refused to negotiate through last weekend, and that was a shock to the union.

City officials are warning drivers to keep plugging parking meters because the city intends to make that revenue source a priority. The city gets about 25 million Canadian dollars ($24 million) in revenue from parking meters.

If the last two municipal employee walkouts since 1997 are any indication, the strike could last up to two months.

Besides almost 600,000 residents in Vancouver, another 80,000 people living in the District of North Vancouver are being hit by job action from their municipal employees.